Everyday, Northern Ireland, Travel, Writing

Sandwiches & Comhrá

We were in a cafe in Derry–cityside, on the main street that slanted sharply upwards and where the rainwater was running down as we sat inside, looking out the main window of the cafe. Both me and my best friend had our laptops, we had plans to work on essays as we tried not to get too distracted by photo editing and talking about our weeks and facebook. Part of study abroad is actually studying; but so much of it is learning from those around you.

The gal behind the counter came over when we were ready to order and, noting our American accents, asked us what we were here to study. “We’re both here for a year,” I said, “And we’re taking Irish language and culture classes.” Most people either wrote this off, changing the subject or asking why in the world we’d want to study that (when you’re in the North, there are a lot of mixed opinions, understandably–some people fall on the British side of things and don’t appreciate the language and culture as much)… but she got excited and asked us about our language class.

“How much have you learned?! Can you order in Irish?”

Me and Chrissy both laughed as we looked at the menu and strung a few words together, apologising our way through it. “I’m afraid we’ve just had a few classes!” we threw in a few phrases we knew as well. She laughed as she took down her orders, but we managed to throw a good “Go raibh maith agat!” in there (“thank you”).


When she came back, she had a piece of paper with all sorts of information on it. “I’m just learning the language myself,” she said, putting the tea and sandwiches on the table, “But my boyfriend is fluent and we’ve been going to this language workshop every week. I forgot almost everything I learned in school, so I’m just getting started again.”

Still–she was able to teach us how to order in Irish, say the different names on the menu and quiz us on our limited vocabulary of numbers and greetings and weather. And when we were done we had not only had a real cultural experience but met a stranger who had a story and a life and a willingness to share with two curious American students. Whenever I read about study abroad, I love hearing the personal stories, because it’s the individuals in those countries who affect your time abroad, not what you copy down off a blackboard. It’s how you connect with the city and her inhabitants that form your time abroad into a life instead of a whirlwind vacation.

I can’t remember exactly when our cafe conversation happened & we didn’t see her again after that. Sometimes the small stories like this lead to big things, other times not–but even in the small conversations I learned everything from random Irish words to a glimpse inside Northern Irish versus traditional Irish culture and everything that went with that divide. Next time I’m back in Derry, I’m going to stop in to the cafe, watch the rain running down the uneven sidewalk towards city hall, and attempt to remember some of my Irish.

(“comhrá” is the Irish word for “conversation.” I use www.focloir.ie as a translator for words I don’t know, but I was taught the Donegal dialect at university)

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