Each time I travel, I am always struck by how familiar even the most foreign places can feel; how pieces of home can be found scattered throughout the landscape of places you’ve never stepped foot in before, like shards of a broken mirror that reflect what was behind you instead of what is in front of you. There is a certain feeling of comfort in both the familiarity and the unfamiliarity of a new country, a new city, a new home, but it is often the similarities that are the most surprising. Every place I travel to, as a result of the interconnectedness of human nature, parallels every place that I have been, including Brown.
This past summer, my family and I ventured over 3,000 miles to Ireland simply because it was one of the few places left in Europe that my dad had yet to explore and because it is not an entirely common vacation destination. We wanted to travel somewhere unique, somewhere we could discover a new culture and lifestyle, try new foods, and see beautiful landmarks–and that we did. We drank authentic Guinness from its very birthplace at the St. James’ Gate Brewery. We rented a car and drove (albeit slowly) on the left side of the road from coast to coast. We visited castle after castle and delved into each facet of Ireland’s history. We saw enough farm animals to fill an ark. We boated to the Aran Islands and took a donkey ride along the weatherbeaten paths. We stood too close to the edge of the Cliffs of Moher. We tried our luck with the local cuisine. We experience Ireland for everything that it was, an island full of
culture, heritage, good music, and good people.
The most striking thing about the country however wasn’t the increased quality of the Guinness or the beautiful landmarks, but instead the amount of superstitions and traditions that were held and upheld by the Irish people. I got my first taste of these traditions at the Blarney Castle, a significant landmark of County Cork and home to the infamous legend of the Blarney Stone. It was here that I found myself at the highest point of the highest tower, suspended upside down over the edge by an Irishman as I pressed my lips onto the worn piece of rock. The legend goes that those who kiss the stone receive the “gift of gib,” or the character of eloquence that allows them to never again be at a loss for words. Locals also believe that, after kissing the Blarney Stone, one will be able to talk himself out of any situation he may find himself in. Each Irishman knows the tale and relays it to the tourists, embedding the legend into the history of the country over the course of hundreds of years, much like the cliffs have embedded into the coastline and the castles have embedded into the rolling hills. The tradition of kissing the Blarney Stone is just as much of an aspect of Irish culture as Guinness or castles.
At the Rock of Cashel, another famous castle in County Tipperary, an old Celtic Cross is exists at the center of centuries-old legends. Our tour guide, a middle-aged woman who had never left Ireland in her entire life (and had the accent to prove it), informed us that anyone who could jump around St. Patrick’s Cross nine times on one foot in the counterclockwise direction would be married within the next year. Alternatively, those that can wrap their arms around it so that their fingers touch will never have a toothache again. My sisters and I tried our luck and then watched as the rest of our tour group did the same, all failing but laughing nonetheless.
At Brown, superstitions and traditions like those of Ireland appear around me each time I step outside of my residence hall. On Pembroke Quad, crowds of students part like the Red Sea as they meander up and down the granite steps, leaving the Pembroke Seal untouched by the bottoms of their shoes. Each of them knows the story: anyone who walks on the Pembroke Seal is cursed with either not graduating or becoming pregnant. Although just an old myth and most certainly proven wrong many times before, the mystique surrounding the Pembroke Seal is a part of Brown’s culture that unites each person that steps foot on campus, creating a shared belief and ideology not unlike those of Ireland. Search even deeper into Brown’s history and discover the legend surrounding the Van Wickle Gates. Each Brown student passes through the gates onto the campus only twice–once during convocation in freshman year and once following graduation. It is believed that anyone who walks through the gates more than these two special occasions will not graduate, resulting in the gates being locked for 363 of 365 days of the year. Brown’s administration itself continues to reinforce this tradition each year as it stresses the significance of this seemingly small and insignificant event, building a history with these two moments that is palpable by all who get the opportunity to experience them.
Even though we may not believe in traditions or superstitions, they are still observed and practiced every day, just as my family and I still made the trek to Cork to kiss the Blarney Stone and attempted to wrap our arms around St. Patrick’s Cross. Real or not, it is traditions like these that unite distant people, whether it be the students of Brown who may be separated only by the haul from Pembroke to Keeney, or the people of Ireland who are separated from us by an entire ocean; they can make miles feel like inches, oceans feel like puddles, and foreign countries feel like home.
So follow the strings that attach your city to their city, that bring your heart close to your home even when there is an ocean between the two. Learn to see your past in your present and your present in your past. Travel to explore the new and appreciate the old. Grow.
Photographs by Emily Oakes
Edited by Amber Yildizel