The most wonderful time that I ever had in my life, was when I went on a university exchange to America. I have never known such a deep and rich experience as that, and I hope that I will someday feel that way again. To understand what made me feel this way, it’s not necessary to know the minute details of the day to day happenings of my life there. I believe that the essence of the time can be conveyed in handful of stories which exemplify all that was great and good about that time and place. I have some 35mm film photographs to show here as well which will help show you what it was like.
This account is retrospective. I am writing now in May, 6 weeks after I left. What happened at the end of the trip and since, will colour my view of what came before it. Instead of trying to write an accurate objective account, using my journal as a reference, I think it will be better to recognise the perspective from which I am writing and let it into the story.
This account is personal. I will be writing from my point of view in the past. It would be wrong of me to publish an account in which I try to write like a fly on the wall, when I was not. I was there, participating in the stories you will read here.
I’d like to say too that none of the fun that I had would have been possible without the friends I went with and the friends I made there. It was the people that made the place what it was.
20,000 Leagues Over the Sea.
3rd and 4th of January
It had only been 13 days since I was drinking beer in the Neiderdorf and saying goodbye in Zurich, but today I was going again, further away, and for longer this time.
On the morning of the 3rd, I awoke from my bed and went downstairs to have breakfast. The sun had not risen yet but my father had. My mother came down soon after and was eager to be off. We couldn’t be late. She was followed by my two sisters who were sleepy eyed and reluctant to be going to Dublin so early in the morning.
The drive felt short because I slept most of the way up. At the airport, we parked the car and all went inside. I checked in my huge heavy bags with a nice lady in at business check-in, while my family got themselves breakfast. On my way up to the cafe I met Mel with his whole family and then some, coming down the elevator to do the same as me. A happy reunion. I said I’d meet him at security after breakfast.
They had finished eating when I came up and I had only a croissant and a damp cup of coffee. My mother kept asking for the time. I don’t remember what we talked about. They were eager to send me on my way. My mother was anxious, my sisters were tired and apathetic, but I could tell that my father was happy that I was going. Even a little proud. We hugged and said goodbye at the start of security where they could follow me no further. They were all smiling at me when I looked back to give one last wave.
Inside, at the start of the duty-free, I met Mel and Alec. Looking back, I consider this as the start of the trip. It was then that I joined with the two friends who I would rarely be without in Atlanta. We went straight to the US pre-clearance centre, got through (with some difficulty) and headed for the business class lounge. We flashed our tickets to the ladies at the front desk and we were in. A set of huge floor to ceiling windows gave us a panoramic view of the taxing planes. The rising sun was bright and was beaming down through the east window onto the food. We set down our bags and scooped ourselves a huge fry with coffee and ate it watching the airplanes go by. I took this first picture on my camera then.
We didn’t talk about what was to come. Only how delicious the food was and about the planes outside. It was an ideal breakfast to start the long journey.
On the plane, an Aerlingus A330, we were shown to our business class seats. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times. But only because it’s special. We left the booking of our tickets quite late. The fares were volatile and it just so happened that the business class fare was cheaper than economy on the day that we booked it. We simply had to. I still cant believe we could have paid more for a seat in economy than what we got.
The seats were huge, and they lay down totally flat for for sleeping. I took my second good picture of the day then. A little dark, but you can see them smiling,
The first glass of wine was offered before they even finished boarding. Alec accepted. Mel and I remained temperant until after take off.
The whole flight was an experience. The food, the wine, – Alec had five glasses by the time we landed in Boston – The conversation with some rich Americans sitting nearby, the comfort. Being able to lie flat and sleep after my roast beef and two glasses of red was simply marvelous.
I had the pleasure of a window seat too. I saw Ireland pass under me from Dublin to Galway, then over Inis Mór and Inis Méan. the last piece of western Galway receded to the right and we were over the great blue expanse of the Atlantic. After some hours of food drink and relaxation, Newfoundland started appearing through gaps in the clouds.
We arrived in Boston after 8 hours over hurtling through the air. I was a little sad that the flight was over. It was a gray day, around 1 pm local time when we touched down. Mel and Alec were good friends in UL with a girl in Electrical Engineering called Theresa who happens to live in Boston. She came over to UL for the cheaper price of college. She was our cicerone for the day. And what a wonderful 5 hours of walking around Boston we had. She took us to Fanueil Hall, Boston Common, the freedom trail, the grave of Benjamin Franklin. Boston is a city which wears its history on its sleeve. A history which is longer and grander than that of any other American city. And Theresa knew the place well. I took a good few nice photographs then.
Because of its density, and older age, Boston feels like a European city. Although the buildings are tall, I felt like its scale was still human. It reminds me a little of London.
Theresa was a fantastic guide and lovely to talk to. I don’t know why I had never really spoken to her before then. My favourite part of the tour was Boston Common. A huge public park, one of the oldest in the world. It had fountains, statues, well kept grass, big old trees, many grey squirrels, and an ice rink. We considered getting on for a skate, but the evening was getting on and we were getting hungry.
We had dinner in a Thai restaurant. I don’t remember much about it, except that the food was OK and filled me quite well and when I we emerged from the place, the streetlights were on, and two boys were playing with a baseball on the steps. I wanted to keep walking around. The city was beautiful at night, and I savoured the sights as they came to me on our walk back to the bus station. A man playing jazz on a street corner, a woman feeding the pigeons from a bench. Crowded intersections of people crossing the street under the lights of the city. At the airport we all hugged and said goodbye to the Theresa. She had been great company on our flying visit. We made our way to the gate for the flight to Atlanta. Tiredness was beginning to set in. I don’t remember what time it was, but I know that I must have been awake for at least 20 hours by the time they called our boarding group.
The flight to Atlanta was three hours. Pittance compared to the eight hours we had spent crossing an ocean. But that was in business class. And oh! How I missed those comforts on this second flight. I couldn’t sleep a wink, the lights were kept on the whole time, and no free food. We landed in Atlanta at one in the morning. It was pouring rain outside.
Finding bags and making our way through the rain to the uber pickup was a challenge after having gone so long without sleep. We found the uber and drove to the I-house on Techwood drive. Driving through Atlanta late at night in the rain while sleep deprived gave me a certain type of first impression of the place. More big lights, a six lane highway through the city center, People sleeping rough in the underpass tunnels. As a city, not as impressive as the London of the west we had come through. We reached the I house and noted how the bank of America building whose orange-lit spire was half obscured by the rain clouds, looked a bit like Sauron’s Tower.
We called a resident’s assistant number and waited outside in the rain for someone to let us in. We were shown our rooms and we collapsed into bed. Mel had to walk a half mile to his accommodation at North-Ave in the rain. I did not envy him. We had been travelling for twenty-five hours and thousands of miles to get to our beds in this place. They had no sheets, so we slept in our clothes. The long journey was at an end, a new age would begin the very next day.