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I Can Still Save You, Robert

“Have a good day, Charish,” RJ* says every time he leaves my classroom. I wish him well as I wipe down the white board. When the classroom is clear of my college freshmen, I sit down and stare into space. In the empty room, my thoughts feel loud and echo against the walls. There’s something about RJ that bothers me. There’s a nagging thought that is burrowed in the back of my mind. This young man with his goofy grin and enthusiasm for classroom discussion reminds me of someone in my past. When RJ speaks up, it always comes from the gut, visceral and emotional. He, like most of my students, have learned that they can slip curse words into their vernacular and I won’t judge them for “keepin’ it real.”

“So like, I didn’t know how to be black when I was in high school,” he began with an nervous laugh. “I wasn’t white enough for the white kids and I wasn’t black enough for the black kids. Like, shit, cut me some slack. You know?”

I did know. We were reading a short excerpt from a memoir that echoed RJ’s sentiments. It was a lighthearted piece, but there were definitely undercurrents of pain and a desperate desire to belong. I think RJ picked up on what the author put down in a major way. He is a biracial boy, who might have a white mother and black father. I began to pick up on these clues when students talk about themselves in regards to our readings (I’ve hit the sweet spot in classroom discussion where students feel comfortable having a dialogue among themselves while I stand on the sidelines).

When it dawns on me, who RJ reminds of, it hurts my heart. When I was ten-years-old, living in Indiana, the only other black kid in my elementary school was Robert.* Well, I was the black kid and Robert was the “mixed” kid. We were the one and a half black kids at North Elementary. We rode the same bus and took the same 5th grade class. While I was the poor student who couldn’t do homework, I was also a nice kid. I was sociable and polite; keeping my rude comments, hands, and feet to myself. Robert was none of those things. He was loud, combative, and angry. So very angry.

At what, I wasn’t sure. I remember him playing basketball with the white boys and always ending up in fights with them. He was put into the corner by our teacher, Mrs. Hoffarth* and if it got bad enough, she sent him to the hallway for a spell. Mrs. Hoffarth was a very old woman who enjoyed children who were seen and not heard. I’m not entirely sure what she got out of teaching elementary-age students, but she seemed especially intolerant of Robert’s Nonsense.

My relationship with Robert was complicated. At a time when we started to notice boys, got our periods, and worried about our breast sizes, the girls of my class were a mess. Suddenly, it was decided that we should all make moves to obtain boyfriends. And naturally, the girls decided that Robert would be perfect for me because even then, Indiana kids knew “likes go with likes.” Never mind that Robert was more like a brother to me. He loved goofing around with my mother and me at our bus stop. She’d ruffle his tight sandy curls and make faces at him when he got on the bus, like he was her son. She once revealed to me: “I feel sorry for that Robert. His white momma doesn’t know what to do with him.” In my child-mind, I wondered if black kids having white mothers was a bad thing. But his family seemed like a sensitive subject, so I decided to leave it alone.

I wondered if family was what made Robert so angry that he fought so much on the playground. Was it his parents that made Robert bust some white kid’s lip (I later learned that the word “oreo” had been thrown around one to many times)? That was the incident that earned him week-long suspension, which was rather extreme at our school. While he was gone, there seemed to be a lightness in our classroom. It was as if the “bad element” was gone and we could finally learn in peace.

In his absence, Mrs. Hoffarth did the unexpected. She took this opportunity to express her grievances about a 10-year-old black boy and invited us to do the same. We had an impromptu meeting about The Robert Problem. I watched as, one by one, all of my white classmates voice their “concerns” about his behavior, while our teacher nodded thoughtfully. She interjected with a few “Mmh-hms,” and some exasperated “I know’s” before turning to me.

“Charish, you can tell us what wrong with Robert? Why does he do the things he does?”

My face grew hot under the sudden scrutiny. Up until then, I had listened quietly to the child mob tattle to their mom. I cringed when my secret crush Eric L. described how he felt when Robert shoved him and called him a “stupid white boy.” I didn’t have anything to add to this discussion, knowing that it was a cowardly way for Mrs. Hoffarth to wield her authority. All head turn to my directions; all eyes were on me. My mouth went dry.

“I don’t know.”

That didn’t satisfy our teacher and back then I didn’t know why. She tilted her head to the side and narrowed her eyes. “You and Robert seem very close. . . Are you sure you don’t know?”

Racism can be hard for a 10-year-old to spot. I couldn’t articulate the discomfort that I felt, I just knew this line of questioning was wrong. What she wanted to ask was: Is Robert’s behavior a cultural issue? Is this a black thing? Can you tell us more about the black experience?

Robert eventually came back to school. And when he did, he was transferred to Mr. Easton’s class. I rarely saw him, but when I did, he was quiet. His eyes were always downcast. When I tried to say hello to him or talk to him on the playground, he evaded me. He avoided all of the students from his former class. It wasn’t until we all got to middle school that Robert became a new boy. He was tougher, slicker, and understood long before I did, what it meant to be a black kid in Indiana.

I moved from Indiana and lost track of everyone from that school. But Robert was in the back of my mind wherever I went. It wasn’t until a year ago, I thought about him and couldn’t shake him. I tried to look him up on all of the social mediums, but his name was too commonplace. Hours of clicking led me to something startling. My chest felt tight when I saw his photo. His eyes were the same haunting green that I remember. As my eyes scanned the webpage, I began to cry.

I was reading what appeared to be a profile for inmate pen pals. My old friend was in prison, seeking female friends who could write him letters. He was sent there the same year I took my first teaching job in Thailand and he wouldn’t be released until 2026. We’re the same age. We came from the same bus stop, same classroom with Mrs. Hoffarth, same middle school with lockers down the hall from one another. We were on the same track: One and a half black kids from Indiana. 

Students from my next class are starting to filter in. As they find their seats, I sigh inwardly. When we were kids, I didn’t know my path would lead me to the front of the classroom just as Robert didn’t know his fate lie behind bars. RJ is not Robert (most of what I think I know about him might be speculation), he’s made it much further than my old classmate. This kid is in college sorting out his major, making friends, and expressing himself in my class. I’m not his mother nor am I the lady at the bus stop who can ruffle his hair and make funny faces at him. I’m not even his friend. He has plenty of those already.

I’m his professor. The best thing I can do is not be the white teachers who give up so easily; the teachers who can’t see past the surface of a “bad attitude.” Had I known how precarious Robert’s future was, I would have tried harder. I still don’t know what that would have looked like but I know that 10-year-old Charish could have been more fierce with her loyalty.

Higher Education wasn’t meant for the underrepresented students like Robert and me. It doesn’t just open it’s gates to the black and brown kids of America. The students I get are diverse in class and race, but I can spot the kids who got to my class by the grace of God. They’re hanging on by a thread, worrying about their grades, money, or family back home. They haven’t shaken loose the past like I did. It’s all so tenuous and I can see it on their tired faces when they show up.

If I can just remember that every time I start class, maybe I can keep them on track for a little while longer. Maybe I teach because I’m still trying to save Robert. Perhaps I’m still trying to stand up for the black boy who was absent that day. I’m still desperate for the opportunity to articulate what Robert and I couldn’t. I suppose in a Trump world, now seems like a perfect time to be fiercely loyal to the Dreamers, the LGBTQ kids, and the black kids who need the loudest voice. I can keep trying to be that loud voice.

*names have been changed
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I think I was about thirteen when I learned that black people can’t go just anywhere in the United States. It was a very quick, subtle lesson that could have easily been missed but I did spot the concern on my mother’s face when she said, “We’re not stopping in Rogers for anything.” She said this in response to my stepfather’s unfurled map of Northwest Arkansas. As they sat in the front of our family van, charting a route to Fayetteville, I paid close attention to the unspoken tension from the backseat.

My stepfather noted that there was no way of avoiding the town. We’d have to drive through it to reach our destination. But no, we would not stop. From our vacation home in Bella Vista, where money made more of a difference than color, I was more out of touch than I understood. I didn’t notice the lack of black folks in the tiny community, which was devoted to the Walmart corporation. There was literally a golf course behind our rental. Elderly white men, in their golf carts, regularly made stops yards from where I sat on the patio to read.

It was when we made plans to see the university town of Fayetteville, I was reminded that I was black and that I was definitely The Other. No amount of money would change the fact that when we hit the open rode someone would have to pee. There was a good chance that we’d have to pull over in one of those dinky Arkansas towns. Even if we drove through without gassing up, peeing, or stretching our legs— there was a good chance that state patrol could pull my stepfather over.

The journey only took an hour. It was mostly quiet aside from my parents speaking in hushed tones about this forbidden town of Rogers. “You just don’t stay around this area after dark. Everyone knows that,” said my mother. The tension didn’t let up until we got to the city limits of Fayetteville. Only then, my sister and I felt comfortable enough to start jostling around in the backseat. My parents began talking louder; their laughter was nervous with relief.

I didn’t fully understand the term “sundown town” until I was in college and I had read there were many of them in Illinois (where I went to school). If white people didn’t want blacks in their town after the sunset, they let us know it. In the Jim Crow South, The Negro Motorist Green-Book was a valuable lifeline for those who wanted to travel safely. This annual publication informed black travelers which hotels, restaurants, and service stations were relatively safe. Most importantly, the Green Book told us which towns to avoid entirely. This booklet, first published by Victor Hugo Green, probably saved lives in the 1960’s. In a time where the middle-class was booming for all Americans, families wanted to take road trips on the interstate highways. Black families wanted to go on vacation as well. It was just more. . . challenging for us.

I was thirteen-year-old in 1997 when my mother, a child of the 60’s, grew concerned about traveling through her native Arkansas. Twenty years later, in 2017, the NAACP has just issued a travel advisory for the entire state of Missouri. They ask that black people “use extreme caution” while traveling to or through the state. They cite incidents like the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, university students who received death threats in Columbia, and recently passed legislation that makes it difficult to sue employers who are guilty of discrimination. An entire state is on notice.

I have written and spoken about this before. I have described what it’s like to travel to Thailand, Finland, Estonia, and Ireland, as a black woman. I may have experienced awkward moments but I don’t remember a situation that made me grit my teeth and stay silent like my mother did in 1997. She knew better than I the dangers that lie in wait in our own backyard; that simple road trips could go horribly wrong if she didn’t keep her wits about her. What I didn’t realize was that things hadn’t really changed and that, in some cases, we were backsliding. I have a U.S. government-issued passport that will take me everywhere in the world. The sundown towns of my own nation. . . the jury is still out on that.

Fayetteville was nice. We had a chain-restaurant meal and did a little shopping but we didn’t stay too long. I’m now certain that while we had fun, my parents thought about the drive back to Belle Vista and the potential issues that could arise. We took off long before dusk. Our drive was quiet.

 


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On Casinos

I let out a small gasp when I use the ATM machine. My husband stands over my shoulder and sounds frantic, “What??”

“They allow people to take out $3,000 at a time!”

He looks relieved. He thought there was something wrong with our account. “You’re in a casino.”

We are at Hollywood Casino because I want a sure bet: The Epic Buffet. I know that with $10 a piece, we won’t exactly beat the house, but we’ll leave properly satiated. But in order to get the buffet, my husband and I have to walk through the frenzied lights and sounds first. That’s when I see the hordes; tired and bored Toledoans parked in front of penny slots, pressing buttons and waiting. There are the usual gray-heads, but a few younger people as well. They all have one thing in common: Desperate hope. . . and probably addiction. Hence the $3,000 cash allowance at the ATMs.

My husband and I eat our meal, commenting that we’re the youngest people at the buffet. While I fork through my dry baked cod, I get the itch. I try push it to the back of my mind and continue eating. But on the second trip to the food line, I can’t help but sneak a peak into the open gaming area, back at the color lights and fake cash register sounds. The itch gets stronger and when I return to the table with my over-salted chicken, I tell my husband: “We’re going to play with $10 dollars before we leave.”

He raises a brow before saying that he didn’t bring any cash. I brush off his concerns. “They have ATMs.” He nods and goes back to eating.

Addiction, in my family, is a bit of an issue. I can trace it back to the stories my mother told me about her father, Archie. My grandfather was a drinker, gambler, and from the way mom had a penchant for dramatic flair, probably a horse thief as well. He came home regularly without important items like shoes. Perhaps he lost his shoes in a card game? My own father, though I didn’t know him well, had a deep relationship with alcohol and a menagerie of drugs. My uncle, a Vietnam veteran, was more or less on a similar path. The war did its best to solidify that path. These were the men in my family.

My own flirtation with addition first came in the form of gambling in college. I learned how to play poker in my school’s cafeteria and I’d like to believe I got good at it, until I didn’t. A dollar a hand was easy enough, but when I began seeking out the game instead of going to class, it was cause for concern. I put an end to it before it affected my grades because I was more afraid of failing than falling into a legacy. But addiction has a sneaky way of mutating itself. Gambling turned into smoking. I only quit smoking because I was scared into quitting. When a day-long asthma attack couldn’t be abated with a simple emergency inhaler, I had to haul-ass to an emergency clinic. I was on bedrest for days after, trying to catch my breath. Though my family’s legacy and my own flirtations haven’t gotten me into deep trouble, I still regard every sip of alcohol warily. It could always become the start of something sinister.

So I should know better than to withdraw money at a casino. Also, you can’t just pull $10 out; it has to be twenty. I find a machine to break my twenties into four 5 dollar bills. I give half of it to my husband, fearing that if I do this all on my own, it will take longer. And if it takes longer, I’ll start to enjoy it. We each take our ten and split up. Sitting at my machine, I don’t notice that it’s a penny-slot. This bores the hell out of me but I do get accustomed to pulling the arm. You press a button, pull the arm, and watch the cherries line up. Press, pull, watch. Press, pull, watch.

This goes on until the motions are robotic. The frenetic jingle-jangle noise fade into the background as my only objective becomes these three actions: Press, pull, watch. I lose that first $5. I move on to another machine and lose that money as well. My husband breaks even though. He has managed to retain his ten dollars and is satisfied. Nothing fazes him. I should be thankful that he gets no real pleasure from gambling. It makes it easier for him to guide me out of there. Truthfully, when I look around, I realize I get no real pleasure for being here either.

Toledo was promised a great deal when Hollywood Casinos broke ground. There were supposed to be jobs and the surrounding community was to be “revitalized.” Whatever that means. Things haven’t really materialized the way people thought they would. Downtown Toledo still looks bombed out. The revenue hasn’t made a dent in the homeless population or help curb the state’s opium crisis. The people who sit at slot machines and stand around the craps tables know it too. This place hasn’t changed the community for good or bad, we’re all just. . . stagnate.

I pause before we leave. No one looks happy as they flush money down the toilet. The scene is a far cry from the billboards and commercials that show young, vibrant people blowing on dice before they toss; jumping in the air and hugging when they strike it big. Beside me, there’s an ancient women who’s hair is pulled into a small tight knot. She’s wearing a Garfield the Cat t-shirt and purple sweat-pants. Her walker is parked next to the machine. As she slowly pulling a rewards card, something of a quick debit card, out of her machine, she lets out a tired sigh.

Seeing enough, I turn to my husband. “It’s time to go.”

As we walk to the elevators that lead to the parking garage, I see a sign that advertises El Dabarge’s free concert tonight. Now if that isn’t a sign from the gods, I don’t know what is. While my flirtation with addiction leaves me feeling hollow, the Epic Buffet certain does its job of filling my belly. I am suddenly reminded that I have the things I need. My husband and I have the basics and a little more to enjoy a meal out of the house, a trip to the theater, and coffee and a book at Barnes and Noble. There is real, tangible joy from those things. They aren’t based in fluke or luck.

 

 


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Black Don’t Craic Series: Part 3, Meeting Steven

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I talked to man who fishes on the Renvyle coast for lobster. Steven is a short but solidly built man, who’s wind-swept ruddy face broke into a million wrinkles when he gave a less-than-toothy grin. It really didn’t take a lot of effort to get him talking. I just wandered out to the front stoop of the pub to have a smoke. That’s all you need, really.

When he revealed he was a lobster fisherman, I used what I remembered of David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” essay to fill in some awkward gaps in the conversation. I may have impressed him when I asked about hard-shell shedding. Speaking of shedding one’s shell, Steven took that opportunity to switch gears and tell me about the missing tips of his two fingers.

“You know how I lost them?” he asked. Of course I didn’t. I guessed that the hunt for crustaceans may have led to missing fingers. Turns out, Steven had been careless with the lawnmower. The blade took off half of his ring-finger and the tip of his middle-finger. “What did you do?” I asked. He didn’t pass out from the trauma like I would have, Steven ran himself down the road to the doctor.

Apparently lawnmower incidents are rather common in the Irish country-side. In fact, when Steven arrived to the hospital, there was already a man in the waiting room who was missing half a foot. He kicked his lawnmower. I asked Steven what happened to his missing fingers. Urgency made him leave the fingers in the grass bag. However, he did retrieve them later. He planted them in his backyard: “They’ve yet to sprout anything.”

I asked him if, after two years since the incident, he’s more careful with the mower. He admitted that he doesn’t fool with it anymore. He bought himself a donkey instead, it’s a good environmental alternative. I think Steven and I both learned that unlike lobsters and crabs, humans can’t grow back their limbs.

There’s that dark Irish humor


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Black Don’t Craic Series: Part 2, Quick-Wit

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I’d like to think that I’m quick on my feet when it comes to witty repartee, but the Irish have me beat. I should have known better, of course. The Irish gift of gab is real and I’m so delighted that I can experience it for the next month. I’m a natural talker; I’ve been getting in trouble for excessive chattiness since I was a small child. I finally feel at home in Ireland, where the conversations keeps rolling like the hills.

I love being chatty, but I’m a slow talker. I’m especially slower when I’m two pints of Smithwicks in. Collin Coynes, the proprietor of Paddy Coynes, asked me and Noah a series of questions in rapid-fire: Are you with the school? Do you know so-and-so? How long you here? What do you teach? How many student did you bring? ‘Bout how old are the kids? Which cottage are you staying in. . .

It didn’t take too long after that, for Collin to become our best friend. That’s the thing; everyone I’ve met in the Paddy Coynes establishment is like a new best friend. I’m especially flattered that whenever I introduce myself, the locals freak out over my name. Four different people have said: “Charish?? Whoa, that is a class name. Real class. My god, Charish, is it?”

Yesterday, I met Jackie, a world-class champion fly fisherman, who drank Coors Light and bragged about the poetry he wrote. I gave him a little shit about drinking piss beer in Ireland and he took it in good great stride. He and Collin, who was apparently not working that evening, revealed secrets of Guinness, like when a pint was finally ready to drink, that it’s wasn’t originally an Irish beer, and if you hold the glass to the light, the beer was a beautiful ruby red. So I went ahead and ordered a pint. For research. While I was talking with Jackie about his poety, which was hanging on the wall behind him, the cook came out from the back and asked roughly: “How long have you been in town?” I told him, just two days. He shook his head and remarked: “And you’ve managed to become friends with this kook?”

We all howled in laughter. That is apparently what you call “a good craic.”

Now I know I’m only a visitor, an American tourist who will be gone in two weeks. My group and I will invest money in this small village, which seems to be growing because of the visiting university students. But I feel like I’m at home. Tullycross has been so welcoming, it’s like going down to Arkansas to see my family.

Pub craic is easy enough to fall in love with, but I can’t drink like I thought I could. Yesterday was a little too much rollicking fun with three Guinness, three Smithwicks and three whiskeys. It was an unholy trinity that I paid for the following morning. I’ll be in Tullycross for two weeks, so I should learn to pace myself. After all, I’ve got to set a good example for the students. . .

 


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Black Don’t Craic Series: Part 1, Vacation Hair

I’m two days away from spending a month in Ireland and I’m terribly anxious about a very minor thing. It’s very minor to my white husband, considering he’s still teaching himself Irish (which is a HUGE deal to him). I’m worried about Vacation Hair.

Vacation Hair for many black women is a big deal. Sure, there’s planning the essentials like power adapters, passport renewal, and bringing copious amounts of underwear. But when you’re abroad, in countries that might not have the products you’re accustomed to, what’s your plan? No really, what’s your plan? I’m two days away from this trip and I’m still panicking.

The last time I left the country, I was wearing Marley Twists. This was acceptable because I was only going to be in Finland and Estonia for two weeks. While the twists made moving our luggage and clearing our hotel rooms much easier, they became a little uncomfortable and itchy towards the end of our stay.

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Marley Twists in Helsinki, Finland

I have my heart set on packing lighter, carrying only the clothes and electronics that we need. As for as toiletries, just the basics please: deodorant, soaps, toothpaste, etc. I can’t afford to take the bulk of my hair products or a flat-iron (that was the mistake I made when I went to hot, humid Thailand). I don’t want to go full-fro (that was what I eventually needed to do in hot, humid Thailand).

Also, I still want to look cute. . .

So I’m taking a couple of stand-by wigs. I don’t like the idea of storing them in a suitcase, but it could free me up to carry fewer hair care products. I’ll just take my conditioner and my wide tooth comb. Am I being ambitious? Perhaps. The point is, I still haven’t gotten the hang of Vacation Hair. Every trip I take, here or abroad, I think I’ve perfected the problem only to buy the Wal-Mart comb that I accidentally left at home.

I’m taking a short simple number and a curly one:

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I will let you guys know how it works out. I have found a good article about traveling with wigs. I’m hoping that helps keep me properly on the move. If you have any Vacation Hair tips, please leave them in the comments section. Remember, I’ll also have Ireland Vlogs on my Motley News YouTube Channel. I want you to see the sights and hear the sounds (of the sheep) as well!


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Hitting the Road: Emerald Isle

The Motley News is taking this show on the road. . . internationally.

I’m headed to Ireland for my university’s study abroad program. While my husband is teaching and guiding students from our institution, I’ll be free to discover the country-side (I’m not teaching this summer, lol)

Two weeks will be spent with the students in a small town called Tullycross, a literal “one-horse town.” When we checked it out on on Google Earth, it was a fairly short tour. Students and faculty will stay in thatched-roof cottages with kitchens and peat-burning fireplaces. Sigh. . . it sounds positively bucolic.

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You are entering  Tullycross

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The church is in the center of town

After the students have their study abroad experience, they will return home from Shannon Airport while hubby and I continue onward to Ireland’s fifth largest city, Galway, where we will spend five nights near the famous Eyre Square. I’m especially excited to see the college town of Galway, with its young hipsters, packed busy pubs, and international cuisine.

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City-center shopping

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Cliffs of Moher

Our next stop, which might be hellish to get to, will be the coastal town of Dingle. Funny name, but it sounds like a lovely place. We’re going to be there for five nights, seeing the fishing boats, palm trees, and dolphins. You heard right, this West Ireland town, “featured” in the romantic comedy Leap Year, has dolphins. Specifically, a famous dolphin named Fungie. I don’t know if I’ll meet him (that would require me to get in a boat and find him).

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There’s Fungie

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View of the coast

Our last five days will be spent in Limerick, the “Cultural Capital” of Ireland! It was informally known as the “Stab Capital” of Ireland. In his Ireland guidebook, even super-intrepid Rick Steves said to watch your wallet in Limerick. I’m looking forward to being in another vibrant university town with young folks. Not to mention, there’s the beautiful King John’s Castle:

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So, that’s the trip! I’ll be in Ireland for a FULL MONTH. This is a great opportunity for me to flex my travel writing skills again. Trust me, posts after this will be a lot more specific to location, detailed, and (hopefully) wittier. Also, check out The Motley News YouTube Channel for on location videos.