Inside my passport, haphazardly spread willy-nilly across the pages, are four entrance stamps at Dublin airport, the first stop on my now yearly journey to Armagh. Each one represents a first impression that has become memory. My very first trip here in 2006 was in November, over Thanksgiving Weekend, and it was dark by 5:30p. The streets seemed solemn, the cafes were few, and the people we met friendly, but cautious. When I returned in 2012, I immediately noticed the openness the longer days gave. People gathered in a new cafe at the corner of the square, some of the boarded up buildings were now rented. I learned my way around the streets and learned how “th” was pronounced in the North. Last year, the hostel was refurbished and a new fence was put up around St. Brigid’s Well. I started slipping into a lyrical speech pattern that mixed in Northern Irish pronunciations with my slightly New York accent. It was warm for here, but nothing like the humidity I had abandoned back home. I didn’t cry this time when we went to Belfast and looked at the Peace Walls, but my students did.
This year, I can’t sort out my first impressions from my memories any better than I can figure which one of those entrance stamps belongs to which journey. I feel like there are more shops open and the town seems lively, but maybe I am just projecting my own happiness about returning to a place that feels like a home.