No, not in upstate NY. Been there. Done that. It’s Derry, Northern Ireland, where I stayed in Bogside. I hadn’t planned to make this a trip into the past. Or into myself, either. It was just one more of my treks to see what there is to see. It became a journey of feeling as well as seeing.
Things went slightly askew from the moment I walked across the bridge from the train station into town. I’ve usually got a pretty good sense of direction. It left me, as did my ability to comprehend the map that didn’t have any of the streets and alleys I was told to follow. As I wandered around the grey medieval walls under grey skies I felt I’d moved into that black, white and grey world where a skinny guy with his cigarette stands just beyond the next corner.I didn’t plan to stay in Bogside, either. I’d simply reserved the first B&B on the list. The church bells rang hymns familiar from my school days, now sung by local kids walking past me. I recognize the pace of the local speech because I grew up with it. [My grandfather came from a town less than two hours away.] Ireland is a small place with over 20 different dialects. This one’s second nature, even if I haven’t heard it in 40-odd years. I still hear its pauses, inflections and those meanings that may not match a dictionary’s. Words are what you use to be social. A look, a nod or a pause tells more, lots more, than words. There’s the story people tell outsiders that everyone gets along. But local neighborhoods and schools are still segregated. Flag-bedecked walls between neighborhoods still stand – and are still maintained. And those are just a few of the visible differences.
Museums, monuments and wall murals from the Troubles trigger my memories of same era’s US civil rights and anti-war marches. And Kent State. But there’s an exception to this déjà vu. We were college kids who could go somewhere else. Here, there’s No Exit.
Beyond Bogside’s murals I see the fast-food physiques walking alongside beer bellies as people pass by the charity shops, employment offices and Pound shops that line the streets. It’s interesting to see the Pound shops selling the same items for a pound that the Euro shops sell for a euro – which makes each item about 40% more expensive here.
Wherever I went I encountered a polite reserve that was a bit more formal than I’ve been used to in Ireland. Diffidence means survival in a conflict culture. Locals are also used to long lost cousins returning from other continents, but that’s usually in summertime. I noticed the rebel songs and traditional dancing in the pubs was for themselves, not roots-searching tourists. When they asked where I was staying and I told them, the barriers came down and the conversation opened up. Apparently my landlord is a local man of some importance. And even without the entrée his name gave me, if I looked familiar I was treated differently. I walked into one restaurant for the first time and one of the hosts grinned and greeted me, saying he was glad to see me back. Before I had a chance to correct him, the door opened, letting in a lot of rain and people at the same time. He handed me off to one of the waitresses. Later he came over to my table and we chatted like long lost friends for nearly five minutes.
Will I go back? Don’t know if I need to. Derry’s pulse touched me in a way that only happens in some very unique, very intense places. I may have left Derry. I doubt if it will leave me.