Ethan Mitchell

I think it’s important that you know falling asleep on an airplane is very difficult.

Picture it: your flight departed Atlanta at 9 p.m.

The person in front of you has reclined their chair.

You’re in an aisle seat and know the person sitting next to you, but they’re your university’s head research librarian, so you have the vague feeling using them as a pillow would be a jerk move.

Eventually, you strap on the flimsy, polyester sleep mask provided by the airline and put your head face-down on the lap tray.

You look like someone passed out at a dinner table. If there was bowl of soup in front of you, you’d be drowning.

Hopefully, your right elbow and/or foot isn’t going to be beaten out of the way by a flight attendant fighting for her life against a 400 pound beverage cart.

You inhale the cold, recycled air you’ll be breathing for the next seven and a half hours and wonder where the bathroom is.

You also wonder why the complimentary meal included pasta salad as a side dish when the main course was ravioli.

Somewhere in the rows ahead of you, your classmates are — allegedly — comfortably asleep.

You envy them, because all your  professors have told you that once you land in Ireland the jet-lag is going to hit you like a linebacker with a vendetta.

That’s the scenario I found myself in the night of July 6.

I had been waiting four years to make this trip: a two -week study abroad program organized by the Honors College of Valdosta State University.

Freshman year I betrayed myself and chickened out of signing up. “I’m not ready yet,” I’ll just go next year,” I thought to myself.

I thought wrong.

The next year was 2020, and I spent most of it concerned I might drop dead from COVID if I went to the Circle K, let alone a foreign nation.

Two years later, I was set to graduate in a handful of months and figured my window of opportunity had shut.

At the last possible minute, the Dean of VSU’s Honors College sent out an email letting students know that an opportunity to visit the Emerald Isle had opened.

“I am writing to see if you are still interested,” the email said.

Twelve of us were.

Joined by two chaperones — research librarian Dr. Arbor and history professor Dr. Levine* — our task was to immerse ourselves in Irish culture and keep track of all the things that stood out to as a similar or different to America.

We would have 10 days of structured, tightly scheduled activities and four choose-your -own-adventure excursions.

Maybe it was anticipation that kept me awake on the plane.

Then again, maybe it was heartburn from the ravioli.

At some point over the Atlantic Ocean we crossed the International Date Line, so when we finally landed in Dublin at 10 a.m. it was the start of July 6 all over again.

Before long, we were on a shuttle-bus making the two hour drive to Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city and home of South East Technological University, where we’d be staying for the next half a month.

Ireland is a rumpled, patchwork quilt of a country.

It bends and folds in on itself so that you’re always moving either uphill or downhill.

If you can see the ocean there’s a 50/50 chance you’re in a valley or walking towards a cliff.

Natural and man-made fences chop the land into neat squares that somehow turn even more green in pictures than they look out the bus window.

The road, on the other hand, isn’t chopping through anything.

It curls through the countryside, following the natural movement of the land and pressing itself up tightly against the sides of hills.

All the Irish highways were much more narrow than ours. The biggest road I saw in the whole country was a four-lane with a top speed limit of 100 kilometers per hour (62.5 mph).

If you stuck your hand out a car window you could probably slap the hood of a passing vehicle.

All the buses and semis were flat-nosed and there were barely any pickup trucks to be seen anywhere. I counted two the entire trip.

In the rural areas there were no traffic lights. If two roads merged they did so at a roundabout.

Every once in a while we would pass the ruins of a castle or some other ancient stone building. Apparently, Ireland has a surplus of them.

A few were in pastures surrounded by cows.

It was like driving through a picture of Georgia somebody held up in front of a fun-house mirror.

My friends wouldn’t know. They fell asleep on the bus too.

Some things did feel right at home, though: halfway to Waterford a Circle K rose up over the horizon.

Everyone woke up in time to go inside, dazzled at the prospect of an exotic gas station in a foreign land.

I was just glad that 2020 was behind me and I could walk into a Circle K without fear.

An hour later, I and the rest of my chaotic group of travel companions finally arrived in Waterford, kicking off a series  of events that would end up including sheep, public transportation, a leprechaun museum, relationship drama, potatoes and a 25 mile bicycle ride.

To be continued...

*Names changed for privacy

•Ethan Mitchell is a staff writer for The Blackshear Times. Reach him at emitchell@blacksheartimes.news.