It’s not taking time to rain today in Phoenix – I might as well be looking out at the playing field between our house on the Dublin Road and Lough Neagh. It is – according to The Daily Edge’s “11 Levels of Irish Rain” "REALLY lashing . . . hammering down."
On such a day, I'll deal with inexplicable pangs of homesickness, an old, unchanging feeling that will pass, the way it has done countless times since I first came to America. It is as real a feeling as it was when I first experienced it twenty-five odd years ago. Perhaps this lump-in-my-throat melancholy and migration belong together, and social media – while allowing me to notify friends and family via Facebook or Skype in real time about the uncharacteristic storm in Phoenix – makes it worse, reminding me that indeed I am not there at the kitchen table with my mother to discuss the weather and what not to wear. Don't get me wrong. Social media plays a critical role in my life, but it has not replaced the need for a real social network in a real, physical space, which is why on those days when I need a bit of craic, I will seek out a pint and a plate of chips in an "authentic" Irish pub.
It's easy to find such a spot in places where the Irish diaspora is well represented, in the major ports of entry – Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, New York. (Honest to God, every time I visit New York city, I meet someone who knows someone I know back home). But Phoenix, Arizona, although the sixth largest metropolitan area in the USA, is a different story altogether.
Phoenix – synonymous with sprawl – is big and too wide, its residents spread far out into the sunset. Its Irish come together for the big parade on St. Patrick's Day or events at the Irish Cultural Center, but it requires getting into their cars and driving. There's no such thing as walking down to the pub for a pint. Well, there is, but not if you want to feel as though you're back home on a Friday night.
At Tim Finnegan’s pub they celebrate such things as the half-way mark to St. Paddy’s Day – did you ever think such a thing would be celebrated? I love Finnegan's with its bright red door and the old shop signs for Woodbine cigarettes and Lyon’s tea. More than that, they serve up a curry chip if you’re in the mood. The owner, Tom Montgomery, assured me that I would love the curry sauce (he was right), and he reminded me that, after all, his father is from Quilty, County Clare, and the recipe for the bread and butter pudding is his grandmother's – she was from County Mayo.
Tim Finnegan's pub is the perfect place for a Phoenix Sister Cities fundraiser, traditional music in the background, emigrants like myself who have been here a while and others who just arrived last week. The Phoenix Sister Cities Commission (PSCC) was established in 1972 and now supports 10 sister city relationships: Calgary, Canada; Catania, Italy; Chengdu, China; Grenoble, France; Hermosillo, Mexico; Himeji, Japan; Prague, Czech Republic; Ramat-Gan, Israel;Taipei, Taiwan; and Ennis, Ireland.
To help young Phoenicians appreciate the cultures of their sister cities, and to prepare them to assume their place within an increasingly global community, PSCC sponsors a Youth Ambassador Exchange Program. Highly competitive, the program selects ambassadors to the ten Phoenix Sister Cities for three weeks in the summer, during which they will experience the city and its culture in ways unavailable to a typical tourist. This past July, Phoenix Youth Ambassadors, Emma Mertens and Estefania Lopez, spent three weeks in Ennis, County Clare, where they were hosted by the Hogan and Bradley families.
At Finnegan's, I sat down with Emma's parents, John and Kim Mertens, to talk about the experience. “I’ll do it, “ Emma had said, “If I can go to Ireland.” Not from an Irish-American family, Emma's experience of Ireland was limited to a crash course on County Clare prior to her trip and manning a booth at the St. Patrick's Day Faire in Phoenix. She didn't want to jinx her hopes of visiting the Cliffs of Moher, so she didn't let on to the committee that she was an avid Harry Potter fan, who wanted to see real rain and feel the cold. As it turned out, Ireland obliged – barely.
Chatting to me about her time in Ennis, I couldn't help but remember what Hillary Clinton said the year before my own daughter was born, that "it takes a village to raise a happy, healthy, hopeful child" – a global village. Emma's mother wanted her daughter to experience adolescence – if for only three weeks – in another country. Invoking Mark Twain, Kim Mertens reminds us that:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
As I listened to an increasingly animated Emma Mertens, it was clear that she had been charmed and changed by her experience in Ireland. Touching down at Shannon Airport, she was struck by the unique greenness on either side of the runway, and on the way to the Hogans, the cows on the road that forced them to slow down.
Naturally, her stay included visits to the places that attract tourists – 15th century Bunratty Castle – where, at its medieval banquet, she was the only guest to receive a fork, because she had requested a vegetarian meal; Afternoon Tea at the Dromoland Castle; an afternoon in Dublin, the heavens opening just long enough for her to wear her new rain jacket as she strolled past the GPO with Ailbhe filling her in on its history and the Easter Rising.
There was, of course, the craic, and the way that only the Irish talk to passersby as though they are friends, invariably with a comment about the weather. Male and female, we are all "lads," prone to exaggerations and euphemisms. A mere 'stretch of the legs," she discovered, was a strenuous two hour hike through the limestone hills of aptly named The Burren.
The more pedestrian things have stayed with her too – we drive on the right side of the road, and we charge for plastic bags if shoppers don't want paper, and of course the traditional music. Emma is a student at Arizona School for the Arts, where she plays French horn and sings in the all-state choir, and one of her favorite memories is of a bit of trad and Ailbhe's renditions of the songs you might hear in the pub on a Friday night.
Given my sentimental disposition that afternoon in Finnegan's, I had to ask about homesickness. As much as she loved her time with the Hogans and her Irish counterpart, Ailbhe, there were moments when she just wanted to meet someone who would understand that a 75 degree day in Ireland, while locally described as 'a heatwave' doesn't begin to come close to a hot day in the Arizona desert. So she did what I do, updating friends and family through Facebook and her blog.
Scrolling through its pages, I'm reminded of the post-marked air-mail letters that used to travel back and forth from Antrim to Arizona many summers ago.
She will be back, because there is one thing left to do – experience a hurling match and root, of course, for the Banner Boys. "They take hurling very seriously there," she reminded me.
And what of her Ennis counterpart in the Arizona desert? Ailbhe Hogan and Elana Bradley arrived in Phoenix, along with ambassadors from the other sister cities, during the hottest time of the year. Jam-packed into their stay were opportunities to experience American traditions including an 'early' Halloween costume contest, trick or treating, a prom, Fourth of July firecrackers and even a traditional Thanksgiving feast.
They took in a baseball game and a behind-the-scenes tour of the US Airways center, home to the Phoenix Suns, Phoenix Mercury, and AZ Rattlers. Traveling north to the Grand Canyon and to the red rocks of Sedona, Elana asked, "But where's all the green?" Unimpressed with an Arizona Palo Verde, not looking its best, she observed, "That's what you call a tree?"
There were opportunities for this group of global ambassadors to give back to the community as well, and they spent a morning preparing food boxes for St Mary’s Food Bank, and, of course, to promote education, they visited Arizona State University in Tempe.
They even ventured out of state, to neighboring California and the happiest place on earth – Disneyland. It is a small world after all . . .
Still, everything in America is bigger, isn't it? Of a Circle K Thirstbuster, Elana pointed out that it was as big as her head. Mind you, she was grateful for that thirst-buster, given that her stay here included days as hot as116 degrees Fahrenheit (46.67 Celsius).
So what's next for these young people? The friendships will continue, social media making it easier to do so. They are part of an impressive network that includes 1600 young people who have visited 10 cities in 10 countries, thanks to the Phoenix Sister Cities Commission.
Many of them now embarking upon their professional journeys, some of these young people have taken their friendships to a different level, forging the kinds of business relationships that promote international partnerships that have the potential to improve cities, countries, and the lives of their citizens.
A recent Arizona Republic editorial touts the value of these relationships, citing the current Vice President of China, Xi Jinping's visit to Iowa in 1985. Like our young Ambassadors, he stayed with a local family and learned about the farming culture. During his time, he visited local farms and studied agricultural practices. Learning the value of relationships, I wonder if the young politician ever imagined he would return to Iowa as Vice President of his country, poised perhaps to lead it in the 21st century?
And I wonder what might come of the friendship between Ailbhe and Emma, and how it might blossom into a connection that will make our cities the life-affirming places they are supposed to be. As Jane Jacobs writes, in 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities,' “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
To learn more about the Phoenix Sister Cities programs, visit: www.phoenixsistercities.org.