“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles”
As usual, it has been a while since I’ve come back to tell you the story of my summer. This time I return for what is perhaps the hardest entry, with well over a month of adventure to condense down into something palatable. Even so, it will be the most rewarding part of this tale. It has the most ups, and perhaps the most downs, and if ever I think back on those brief three months I spent half a world away, it will be of the following days.
The above quote made sense for this entry, but still has its problems. This journey was measured in friends after all, but it is those friendships that have both defined the journey and also been defined by it. Confusing, I know.
It’s funny though. At the end of November, I found myself at MedBall (Medicine Society’s ball, for those not affiliated). It was a good night, and exactly what I needed before the long three weeks that were college exams. I wasn’t the only pharmacy student there, and if anything we made up a fairly respectable amount of the guests. At one point in the night, as we all milled about on the dance floor, for the briefest of moments there was a coming together. It only lasted a second, and if you blinked you might have missed it. In fact, if you were there reader, I’m sure you would have hardly batted an eyelid. But there in front of me were seven of my friends. Seven friends, all swept up in a moment of enjoyment at a college ball, who probably didn’t notice exactly what I did. But there were the eight who left Cork at the end of May, and came back again three months later. We will not always be half a world away, but to paraphrase Casablanca, “We’ll always have San Diego”.
At the end of June, perhaps one of the most memorable nights was our night at the ball park. The San Diego Padres probably don’t get the award for the most well known baseball team, but that night we made it all the way to ESPN. Baseball is a funny sport, taking at least 3 hours, full of crowd participation (though I have a feeling this is all American sports) and hard to follow if you show up on a whim. Still, I enjoyed it for what is was. It was nice to see a fabled home run, or try catch a baseball fired into the crowd by a man dressed like a 12th century monk. P.S. we were of course all drunk. It seemed like a thousand Irish J1ers had descended on Petco Park that night, and for those Americans unused to the Irish, it was a night to remember no doubt. Long after the players had walked from their bases and called it a night, Irish twenty-somethings chanted and rocked the stadium like it was our own. The fans went home that night to Fields of Athenry ringing in their ears. For our antics, we showed up on highlight reels the following day. Olé, Olé, Olé, I believe they say.
As a group, we had a sort of thing going that we were “good at the J1”. We got an apartment within a week, and within two weeks we were all employed. Social security numbers and bank accounts came easy to us. We were efficient and organised. It was kinda funny. And of course the J1, if it turns out like that, can feel kinda like a dream. There aren’t any real “responsibilities” and your main concerns are enjoyment and food. But the J1 isn’t a dream. It’s real life, and on the 16th of June we were reminded of that. I still remember the sinking feeling in my gut when I left work at 9am (was working split shifts at this point, one of which was 6.30-9) and saw I had 9 missed calls from my Dad and a host of messages. I had only one thought: something has happened at home. As I looked into the texts, most of which simply read “Ring me” or “Ring home”, a friend of mine and Adam’s struck up conversation:
“Have ye heard what happened up in Berkeley last night?”
We had not, and as she told us all of it, I realised those calls and texts weren’t about something back home, they were about me. I quickly rang my Dad and told him I was OK, while still very unsure of what had occurred. When Adam and I got back to the apartment, everybody was frozen. I couldn’t accurately describe to you what the day after the Berkeley tragedy felt like, only to say it was one of the most vulnerable of my life. The entire apartment complex, with well over 500 Irish students, was in mourning. We all joked about how the Americans thought we all knew each other, but that morning it became apparent they weren’t very far wrong. People crowded the computer room eager to hear were their friends OK, or just to answer home that they weren’t involved. Reported as a balcony collapse in “California”, Irish parents were rightly terrified. And as the hours wore on, the numbers who had passed away rose. To know that six people lost their lives on the J1 is heartbreaking. To know it happened just up the coast from us, in what felt like could have been anybody’s apartment, was frightening beyond measure. Of course, to Americans this barely made the news, unlike at home where it was a national tragedy. And so, we Irish felt like we were in a bubble for the next few days, overtaken by grief in a world that continued to turn. Eventually, for us, it had to keep turning too. As the students were all from Dublin, I didn’t expect to know any of them. A few days later, I re-googled the story, and scrolled down through the names. One of them was familiar, even if faintly. I found a picture, and realised it was somebody I’d met at Irish college almost eight years before. I’m not sure he would have remembered me, save as the person who always went on goal in soccer. A Pacific Beach church held a vigil for the six students, which was crowded with Irish in San Diego. In times like that, all we had was each other to band together with. Of course we weren’t involved, but the nearness of the tragedy to our hearts was very real. They were just like us. For them, the J1 was also a dream.
July rolled around on the J1, and everything kicked into gear. At work, we went from the shy Irish J1 students to a real part of the setup. Now we were working normal hours (whether it was morning or evening), we actually got to be part of the individual camps. For me, that started with camps like Challengers and Soccer Camp, where I got to help win the Spirit Stick two days in a row. The Spirit Stick was as American as it got, decorated by the winning camps and liable to be stolen if let out of a camp counselor’s hands. Spirit Circle was 3pm every day, and there every camp came to perform, compete, and say goodbye for another day. The next day, you might be in Gym 7-12, or High-5 camp for swimming. It was very changeable at first. Of course, within each camp we were kept busy, whether that was organising Arts & Crafts, kicking around on the soccer field or going on field trips to places like the San Diego Ice Arena or the Natural History Museum. Perhaps the best field trip thrown my way to Belmont Park, where rollercoasters overlooked the beach and camp counselors could queue for the rides if they liked. That day unfortunately, I was hungover, and so spent my time with the campers who opted for the arcade. We Irish are tough, but not invincible. As part of camp we were expected to know about a million songs, as any moment might become an impromptu “Bulldog” or a recital of the YMCA song. At first, we Irish shirked the responsibility of joining in if we could, but by the end, we were as loud as everybody else even if half in amusement at ourselves. Those songs came back to the apartment with us, with the Sea World crew liable to groan if myself, Katie, Adam or Aine broke into a “G-double O-D-J-O-B, Good job, good job!”. Even if in individual camps at work, we were still rotated about a lot to cover breaks for regular staff. This was tough. Kids respect authority of those they are used to. As stand-in staff, they ran riot whenever they saw us. Eventually, by mid July we were being placed permanently in camps each week. I had interesting ones like NASA camp, but my favourite will always be “Senior Fun”. Senior Fun(tastic) was the oldest camp in Toby Wells, with kids aged 10 and up. I thought this would be difficult, as I know at aged 10 I was anything but Funtastic. But as I predicted, once the children got used to me, it became remarkable fun. Starting at 6.30am, I used to relish work everyday. Each of them would ask a million questions about Ireland to “Mr.Kyle”, wanting to hear about fairies and the countryside. There were a lot of games of Capture the Flag, Sharks & Minnows and Gaga (which is Israeli dodgeball-very fast, very dangerous). And at the end of it all, I’d sign out and walk out to 7/11 with Adam and Dylan, or maybe Ronan, Conor, Sarah, Roisín or Ciara on occasion. A big gulp was like a tradition for us by the end. It started one morning when I bought a hot dog, and the owner looked at me puzzled and added “You know you can get a big gulp for a penny?” What I’d do to be waiting for the 17:51 bus right now with one of those in my hand. The Senior Fun kids might change every week, but as a rule it was myself, Kristen and Nick as staff and a lot of familiar faces with the kids. There were some so regular they would ask about my weekends, and oh, were the weekends of July good.
The first was of course, the 4th of July. Myself, Adam, Aine and Katie were all off with no camp at the weekends, and so decided to buy a lot of beer in Food 4 Less and head down to the beach. Clearly, we weren’t affiliated with the holiday, as immediately American’s told us to hide our drink. Luckily we had bought a cooler, and so Aine and I went in search of ice. I’ll admit, I didn’t picture myself lugging a 20 pound bag of ice around when I woke up that morning, least of all down the beach promenade, but the cold beer under the San Diego sun was sheer bliss. The four of us sat there for hours, talking about God knows what as we knocked back our purchases. I hate to be over-dramatic, but that has to rank as the most freedom I’ve ever felt on American soil. And considering they love their freedom, I’ll count it among my better memories.
July weekends got better and better. Next we were off to the Del Mar fair, where hundreds of stalls of all descriptions packed into a fairground. Everything was deep-fried, or covered in chocolate, or both. San Diego was also of course host to Comic Con, which as a fan of shows like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, was a pretty big deal. The streets were lined with Chewbaccas, R2 units, Gandalfs, Spidermans etc. It was a Halloween at 90 degree Fahrenheit all brimming around the San Diego Convention Centre. On the Thursday, when the convention opened, a few of us ventured down for a look. Inadvertently, and a few still deny it, we ended up IN Comic Con. We just walked right in. This wasn’t Irish charm (like that time I got into a high school basketball tournament at SDSU-Go Aztecs!), this was just blind luck. And yet still, I accidentally achieved a sort of dream of mine, and for that I was delighted.
SeaWorld comes under a lot of flak, but they do treat their employees well. Free San Diego Zoo tickets was just one of the perks, and for anybody who isn’t a zoo expert, it of course ranks as one of if not the world’s best. The day at the zoo was amazing, with animals I’d never even heard of becoming some of my favourite within hours. It wasn’t Fota-half under construction and a bit lifeless. This felt like a jungle you stepped into. It was perhaps only bettered by my visit to SeaWorld itself. Again, say what you want of the park, but it offers a spectacle to its visitors. I was happily splashed by water from the tail of a Killer Whale, which was only the finale of a day that included seeing the seals, staring at the odd Baluga Whales, riding the Manta, getting drenched on Journey to Atlantis or the rapids and hearing Blue Horizon about a hundred times. Myself, Katie, Eimear and Adam had a mega day out.
The great weekends didn’t stop there, with days out at the batting cages, or trips on the Orange Line (what even is the Orange Line in fainess) or visiting University San Diego standing majestically over Morena Linda Vista. And nestled in between all this yours truly changed his age. Well, I didn’t change it, I turned 22. The day of my birthday I went to La Jolla, where the white foam of the Pacific splashed up against golden cliffs and even the ordinary houses were like mansions to us. We went to In Cahoots the night before to celebrate, where the name of the game was line dancing. We were of course useless, but the prospect of it and a 3 dollar beer was enough to make it a regular haunt for us. I remember Adam switching on Taylor Swift’s “feeling 22” and the whole gang gathering around me. It was kind of funny, being presented with a coveted Dairy Milk bar, which to all of us was like a cake from the Gods. By Mid July our staple number of people had jumped to 14, when we were joined by Mark’s girlfriend Kate and their friend Aidan as well as James from our own class. On top of this, one night we found ourselves hosting a massive 17 people in one apartment. That was as high as it ever got, and I’m sure even if I tried to reassure you this was still reasonably comfortable you’d never believe me.
2130 was a hub for us, with all of us spread over San Diego some days. In the apartment, rather than become a hot bed of anger and frustration like you might imagine, it instead became a sanctuary, where we went to escape the day-to-day and just be 11 Irish people all tossed in together. The regularity of it grew one me. I might take a nap in the afternoon after work, then wake up to Aine and the two Fionas coming back from the pool, Michaela just arriving in after work, Eimear and Katie busy making dinner, Fiachra and Mark in conversation on the floor, Adam sorting music on his laptop and Greeny heading out to get Sombreros, and offering us to join him. Of course, any of the roles above might be changed for one another, which was in effect the beauty of it. We were for want of a better word living, and everyday was a new story, a new adventure or a new private joke for 2130. I might wake up to the bathroom flooding some days, but that was few and far between. For the most part, 2130 was a happy place, where every night its inhabitants sat around saying “Fuck you X” with cans of Four Loco in their hands, listening to spooky stories or all huddling up together to watch a movie (Top Gun, The Lion King spring to mind. If we wanted a movie we had to go load it outside the computer room, so it was a big deal for us). The nights out were too numerous to count, with every Thursday having us racing from a tram to get to McFaddens in time, and every other Tuesday getting a tram and a bus so we could go out in Pacific Beach.
Honestly, when people ask me about my J1, they want to hear about my trip to New York, or gambling in Vegas or camping in Yosemite. Those were all amazing, and will be in another entry. That was really travelling, if we’re going to use the strict sense of the word. But it wasn’t the journey. As I’ll remind you, for the journey, we measure in friends-not miles.