3:50 pm – Train to Derry
Jim asked about my quest – if I had one, which I mostly don’t. That is what leaves me often asking: “What am I doing here?” “Why am I doing this? Is is just the seeing? The doing? The meeting of people?” Maybe. Maybe that’s all there is to it – to all this endless movement.
He spoke of his quest around trad music and Irish culture.
I said that while, likewise, I have an interest in thinking more about the Jewish stuff that, by and large, there’s no where I can go and find the descendants of my antecedents’ neighbours … still going to the same old synagogue, still walking the same streets, etc. They are all, or nearly all, gone. He asked about Israel. I said Israel is more Israeli than Jewish – it’s a different thing, a different place. I suggested it’s like if he had to go to Boston to experience some echo of Irish culture because the Irish no longer lived in any real numbers in Ireland.
I do want to go to Israel, yes, I should do that.
But right now I just want to get to Germany. I’ll have 51 days to get from Cherbourg to my flight from Berlin to Chicago.
I just messaged with Laura a bit – when it works, I do love the WiFi on trains and buses. She’s in Tokyo – has been there 40 minutes and already loves it, as I had presumed she would.
She reminded me it’s about the experiences I’m having. And she’s right of course. It is. And I know that but it was also clarifying – just to have her say that.
10:20 pm – Hostel Connect, Derry
I was last in Derry in 1995 as part of the advance team, the event team, setting up President Bill Clinton’s first visit to Northern Ireland. It was my one foreign trip for the White House and it was a momentous one.
There’s a good short video overview of the trip here – one in which I’m pretty sure I catch the occasional fleeting glimpse of my 26-year old self well in the background.
Part of why I’m in Derry now is to revisit the city and see how much it’s changed, or stayed the same.
Our major event – a gigantic outdoor rally – was in Guildhall Square, we had a smaller event in the Guildhall. So, today, coming from the train station, walking past the Guildhall, through Guildhall Square, was kind of surreal. It felt the same but different. I was then the same and also so very different.
My roommate – there’s only one – is Jennifer from Indiana. She’s here to do the Masters in Peace Studies at Ulster University at Magee. The program with the Tip O’Neill Chair which we endowed 20 years ago in the Guildhall.
One of the strangest experiences I had as an advance person came in relation to Magee College. Our team was recruiting volunteers from the student body and I needed to get to campus for the meeting. None of our embassy supplied cars were available to run me over there from the Guildhall. Nor did our Secret Service colleagues have a free car. But their paired agency, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, did – if I didn’t mind going in a Land Rover. I didn’t realise at the time that meant a militarised SUV with uniformed and armed driver plus one. I needed to get to the meeting and was grateful for the ride so I jumped in and we drove, rather quickly, through the Bogside to the University campus.
It was a peaceful time in Derry but I was well aware of the history I had just sidled into. On a narrow residential street we came to a halt behind a double-parked car. Our driver honked and when nothing happened the other constable jumped out and pushed the car out of the way. Really, that happened.
When I arrived on campus – there were a lot of students milling about, many of whom turned to look at the Land Rover as it arrived and watched me exit with curious and sceptical eyes. I thanked the constables for their time and went to find my meeting.
Back to the present … I invited Jennifer, my hostel roommate, to find a beer. Here’s what I learned: She was in the navy for four years, attended Indiana University, and worked for 11 years for a federal judge, before she quit to come get a master’s degree in Northern Ireland. She’s arrived with a giant suitcase full of domestic tools and personal hygiene products, like soap. She’s both a little embarrassed that she’s brought all this stuff and also like, well, I didn’t know what they’d have and I’m picky.