“I can’t believe you’re finally coming to stay with me! After a whole year! My family is so excited, and my mom is doing crazy cleaning!” Rachael was talking so fast that I could hardly understand her, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I could tell how excited she was, and I knew how excited I was too.
In the summer of 2007, I participated in the Ulster Project, a program to help build tolerance between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. It changed my life. I became so close to Rachael, who had stayed with me for a month during the Project, and I was going to Belfast to see her again and stay with her family for three weeks.
We spent my first few days visiting attractions around Northern Ireland, like Giant’s Causeway with its amazing rock formations, Bushmills Distillery, which is the oldest licensed distillery in the world, and the Belfast Peace Wall and murals. It was exciting being somewhere new and getting to spend so much time with my best friend whom I hadn’t seen in a year.
Every year, Rachael’s family leaves town around the 12th of July because of the Protestant Orange Day marches. I remember the night before we left, asking Rachael’s dad if the marches were still scary even now.
“They try to make them into tourist activities, but at night people still go to the pubs and have too much to drink, and their true feelings show. We don’t like to be in town when that starts to happen. There are people at work that I get along with every other day of the year, but around the twelfth things change.”
Many Catholic families choose to take their vacation around this time, and one of Rachael’s family’s favorite places to go is Ballyvaughan. So, early on the morning of the 12th, we left Belfast and went to stay a week in Ballyvaughan, a tiny town in County Clare. We took some surfing lessons in the Atlantic Ocean with the Aloha Surf School in Fanore. At the end, I was actually able to stand up on the surf board for a few seconds! In the evening we would go to Greene’s Bar and listen to traditional music or stop by Logues Lodge for some traditional Irish dancing. We went to downtown Galway one day to shop, see the street performers, and visit the Spanish Arches.
After I finished packing the night before I left Belfast, I went downstairs to the kitchen for a snack. As usual, Rachael’s mom offered me a cup of hot tea. For three weeks, I’d declined and had a cup of milk while they all drank their tea, but for some reason on my last night in Belfast, I said yes. I had a cup of hot tea, and sat down by the fire with Rachael and her family. It was a somber evening. I was thinking about all the things I had experienced in the past few weeks, all the things I had learned, and how much I would miss Ireland. I felt like I could have stayed there forever.
During the three weeks I spent with Rachael in Ireland, we became closer, and I learned more about their culture and their life than I ever thought I could know. Our friendship grew much stronger, and even though we may only see each other once a year or less, I can honestly say that we will stay best friends for the rest of our lives.
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