Each semester, one student from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Giorgia Piantanida will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Northern Ireland program this spring semester. Giorgia is a junior at Swarthmore College, double-majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies and Environmental Studies. Read on for Giorgia’s final post!
It has been about a week now since my return home from Derry, Northern Ireland. In this past week, I’ve been able to hang out with my family again, reunite with old friends, and walk by the beach I missed so much while away. And to be honest, it has been absolutely thrilling to be home again. I missed the warm embraces and loud laughs my family is known for, just like I missed the familiarity of New York and friends who’ve known me for too long. But at the same time, I realize that though everything is familiar, I am not.
As this week has gone by, I have gone to places and interacted with people that have known me for many, many years. And to me, they are unchanged. They are the same people I left on Long Island in January. But from them, the comment I never fail to hear is, “You’ve changed a lot.”
I’ve been sitting with that comment a lot. Being in Derry-Londonderry was yes, a life-changing experience, but I mostly believed it changed me inside, in ways that few people would ever be able to pick up on. I now realize that perhaps, it did more to help change and grow me as a person that I first perceived.
The first time I noticed a difference was when I was driving on the busy parkways near my house, on a day where the traffic was moderate, but it seemed like everyone had picked up a penchant for cutting me off. Usually, my blood tends to boil in such circumstances and I get quite annoyed. However, each time this happened, I raged for about five seconds, then went on to turn up my music and sing along joyfully.
I usually hate rain, and stay indoors if there are one too many clouds in the sky. This past week, I’ve gone for a long walk every day, even when the rain was really coming down.
In public, I tend to be quite ‘serious’, making every effort possible to adhere to norms and avoid strange looks from onlookers. Each time I’ve gone out this week and heard a song blasting on the speakers, I’ve danced along and ignored strange looks, instead focusing on how happy I was at the moment.
I look back on these minor differences above and really they may seem rather silly, or inconsequential. So what I dance (terribly) in public? So what I walk in the rain? What does Derry-Londonderry have to do with any of this?
Throughout my time in Northern Ireland, between class, field trips, and the internship, I was encouraged to always be myself. In every discussion or debate, I was pushed to speak my part, to have my voice heard, and it was never ignored or brushed aside. Nigel, our program director, created a space in which all of us were to cry and laugh and be completely honest with each other, without allowing space for judgment. Our small, seven-person HECUA group went through many raw, honest and difficult moments, and we always had each other’s backs, even after such a short time together. Each of us had our own special shine, the things that made us unique and the things that made us happy, and we all pushed each other to pursue that, rather than stifle each other. My internship, to which I walked to every morning for seven weeks, rain or shine, always welcomed me with open arms and lent an ear to listen to my questions and thoughts on current affairs. They pushed me to see things in different ways, to conceptualize their community from a new lens, but always made sure I was being true to myself and my experiences.
Right now, sitting at my desk that I’ve been writing at since early high school, I feel a distinct space in my heart where the city and its people took up residence. I miss the long walks by the river or to the Bogside, usually under some kind of rain. I miss the faces that quickly grew familiar, or the small ‘learning wagon’ Nigel used to take us on field trips. I miss playing our music for each other, eating vegan donuts in every new city we visited, and talking about politics until we ran out of words. I miss so many small things, like the small lactose-free section in our local grocery store, or the woman who greeted me every morning at the front desk during my internship. I know that upon leaving Derry-Londonderry, I left a piece of my heart in the walled city, and with every person who I was fortunate enough to cross paths with.
During the last couple of days, as we tried to say goodbye to each other and the town we’d come to love so well, I struggled to find words. Even now, a whole week out of there, I still can’t grasp the right words. I don’t know how to write this post and convey the sadness I felt in leaving, or the profound joy of life I discovered while there. As a big talker, I find myself in a massively uncomfortable situation.
I don’t think, in reality, there are enough words, or good enough words, to describe these feelings. When I left, I could not cry, even though the immense sadness was bearing down on my shoulders. The only reflex I have when thinking about my semester is grinning. Yes, leaving is sad, and I will always have Derry-Londonderry and the people I have met this past semester in my heart. But if it hadn’t been for them, I do not know where I would have found this bone-deep joy. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to cultivate my personality, my wellbeing, and my happiness. I don’t know if I would be the ‘changed’ person everyone now sees me to be. And so, though words feel empty and somewhat futile, I do have some. Just three, though.
Thank you, Derry-Londonderry.