Gemma celebrates her 21st birthday.

Birthdays and goodbyes as another chapter begins

This week is bringing with it a very strong sense of nostalgia for home. This time last year, I was preparing to leave the country for a year, petrified of the unknown, wanting change but fearing it.

Now my year abroad is ending, I am entering another new chapter of my life with new perspectives and outlooks. This Saturday I will land in Dublin at around 9am, where I will be lucky enough to have both of my parents excitedly waiting for me. I am looking forward to slowly catching up with friends and family, not the hello, quick life summary and then goodbye an hour later for another few months.

This past year has taught me so much, more than I will ever learn in any classroom or lecture hall. I’m currently thinking back on the day I left Ireland. Dublin airport was in chaos, restrictions had just lifted, and the country was free to travel again. I had tears flowing down my face after saying goodbye to my brother. My previous airport visits had been with family, heading off to a sunny destination to make happy memories together. This time, I was alone.

When I describe my Belgium experience to people, I always start with fear. The moment I stood outside Brussels airport, not knowing the name of a single soul petrified me. All I had was the email of the company director and the address of the place I would call home for the next few months. The panic rose in me, I wanted to turn back into the airport and go home.

Eight months later I did return home, teary eyed after saying goodbye to my friends in Belgium. With a turnaround of six days, I flew to Malta with a devastated Nicola who had just said goodbye to her parents. It was her first time heading abroad to live. My heart tightened, I knew exactly how she felt. Although I didn’t know Nicola all that well, we are both talkers. We decided to treat ourselves to the first class lounge in the airport, to start the experience off right. Mixing coffee, prosecco and a pair of chatter boxes was an excellent idea. We ended up nearly missing our flight, with a Ryanair flight attendant shouting at us to run and the two of us laughing.

Landing in Malta was strange. It was nothing like we had ever seen before. We tried to take videos to send back home, but each area we passed looked like a construction site – nothing like the sunny destination we were expecting. Furthermore, it was lashing rain. The first few days we were bound to our rooms, with a storm outside and advice not to go out. It felt like another lockdown, but it was an amazing opportunity to get to know each other and our flatmates. How could you be bored in a room of people from Ireland, Canada, Palestine, Turkey, Spain, America and Switzerland? We talked a lot, got to know each other and about different cultures.

I've made the mistake of pairing people based on where they are from, assuming that just because they are from the same country, they should be friends. I've learned that this isn’t always the case, but for myself and Nicola it’s true. We’ve become known as the Irish girls, you don’t get one without the other. You would think that, while sharing a room together we would need a break in the common spaces, but we were always talking the ear off each other over a cup of Barry’s and a snack bar.

Coming to Malta, I was nervous about sharing a room. Sharing your private space is a whole new level of patience, understanding and respect; we adopted each with ease. I’ve come to love our nightly ‘pillow talks’ to summarise the day, however our neighbours may say otherwise.

Malta itself was good, it served its purpose for me. My life consisted of running from one job to the next and never having time to slow down and think. The Mediterranean lifestyle certainly provided the environment for doing that. This past weekend has had a circle effect on me. My friend who helped with my integration in those early Belgium days came to visit Malta. One question she asked was the highlight of my time here. I had to think for a while, I adored the time I danced with Nicola up on my shoulders at the festival we went to on the neighbouring island of Gozo, or the time we travelled to Marseille and Budapest in one weekend, or when we visited Comino and swam in the Blue Lagoon’s caves to see the elephant rock, jiving together in the kitchen, posing for each other in photography classes and the countless cups of tea we shared.

Just this weekend, she made a video to surprise me on my 21st birthday. It contained messages from my friends and family and memories of Malta. We cried as we watched, knowing that our experience is coming to an end.

As I thought back on all my memories, I realised that there was one person connected to them all. So for my answer I said the highlight of my Malta experience was Nicola. Throughout these past four months she has become a sister to me. I am dreading saying goodbye to her this Friday night, but I look forward to embarking upon our final year together in university.

* Gemma Good is from Killeshandra and a third year journalism student in University of Limerick


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