It was 1996; I was 15 and alone. Well, not alone actually, I was traveling with a gaggle of girls, but none of whom I knew before that trip, and I was without any family members. I was, in fact, to be the first of my immediate family to fly overseas. Ireland was the destination, the ancestral home of at least 25% of my family. I’d spend a week camping in Ballyfin in the interior of the Emerald Isle, followed by time spent living with a host family in Dublin and then touring some of the rest of the country.
I’d secured my first passport. I was beyond excited, even if less than thrilled by my photo. I heard the term “ugly American” for the first time, and I was nervous about making the mistakes that could earn me that label.
From the first moment, I was amazed by everything. The plane had upper and lower levels of seating…who had ever heard of such a thing! The Coke cans were tiny, practically no more than a shot, and so fascinating that I kept them instead of throwing them away when the stewardess came around. From my window seat, I stared out the window as we flew in over Ireland and was blown away by how truly, truly green it was. Once in the airport, I read sign after sign about foot-and-mouth disease, which I’d never heard of before.
I learned that July in the northern hemisphere doesn’t always translate to hot weather, as I shivered in a sweater while fair skinned Irish rode bikes in tank tops, turning a bright shade of red. While lugging a huge duffel bag around, I learned that backpacks and wheeled suitcases were the much better option, and I vowed to become a better packer. I learned that though someone might speak the same language as you, it can seem like a foreign tongue, as I tried to translate the heavily accented words flying out of my host father’s mouth.
I was blown away the first morning when my host mother asked me to go outside and collect eggs from the hen house. I hadn’t the first clue how to do such a thing, and all that pecking frightened me. When the milk was delivered fresh to the doorstep, I was charmed. This was Dublin, the nation’s capital, yet there were hens in the backyard and fresh milk at the front door. Wandering around the city, I was taken aback by the dates on cornerstones of buildings, many hundreds and hundreds of years older than my entire nation, and I marveled at how you could have a downtown with nary a skyscraper. And when Sunday rolled around, I could hardly believe that everything, truly, absolutely, everything closed down.
Finally, I was amazed by the intensity of friendships that could develop in such a short period. I knew my host family would always have a place for me (and they did; when I returned in 2001 for a visit the family had grown in number but embraced me just the same.) And the people who I sat next to as strangers on the flight to Ireland were by the time we boarded the plane back home good friends (so much so that in 2003, I would be a bridesmaid in one of their weddings).
The world was, at once, both much smaller and much bigger than I’d ever believed it to be. A door had sprung open, and I couldn’t wait to push through it, to see what else lay beyond my immediate field of vision. I was ready to be shocked and surprised, challenged and charmed. And as I flew back, still stealing soda cans, still pressing my face against the window, I promised myself that that trip was only the beginning.