Thoughts on returning from the Emerald Isle

Finally - after being apart since February, I was able to see my partner Patrick in person. We spent the month of August in Ireland, after waiting through various July deadlines to see if the restrictions keeping me from France, where Patrick had been quarantined since February, would be lifted. Fortunately, Ireland, like the UK, was still open to US citizens traveling from here, as long as we self-quarantined for 14 days after arrival.

In Ireland, things seemed so, well, normal. Safely normal, that is. When I needed to venture out (that was allowed for food), literally every store had a sanitizer dispenser they made sure you used right as you walked in. Everyone wore their masks and kept apart. Sure, with limits on the number of people who could be in any shop at any one time, we'd often wait in a socially-distanced line outside for a few minutes before we could walk in. People seemed to take it all in stride. I realized that I could relieve myself of the tension that had built up in fear of encountering someone who was not wearing a mask.

That wasn't the only tension I was able to let go of during my month in Ireland. With no TV and much to explore once self-quarantine was over, I wasn't bombarding myself with the daily news and my Twitter feed. The physical distance I had from home also brought about a certain mental separation from the anxiety, fear and sadness that information overload exacerbated. That was true luxury.

One thing did bring me back down to earth, however. When people would invariably ask me where I was from or hear my accent, I would get looks of pity - or even unfriendly glares. Throughout my travels, people almost always found something nice to say about the US when they found out my nationality. These days, however, the best I could hope for was a wan smile (or at least that's what I guessed was behind the mask).

While I was there, Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume died at age 83. One of the key players in negotiating the 1998 peace agreement with his Protestant counterparts, this Catholic Derryman was revered in Northern Ireland and the Republic alike. Listening to eulogies from the famous and the not-so-famous on Irish radio, we were struck by the bipartisan nature of the praise for Hume. Sectarian opinions were left behind; it seemed that all Ireland joined together to honor a man who reached across political and religious divides for the sake of his people.

Stopping at the Barack Obama Plaza (yes, it's a thing: a purpose-built rest stop complete with a visitor center and an exhibition of Irish emigration), I basked in the simple joy of sharing appreciation with others. It made me smile to see the host town of Moneygall proudly sharing the story of how President Obama's great-great-great-grandfather left their village for the states in 1850 and to look at photos of the president's visit to the local pub in 2011. It felt good to see our country celebrated, with no mention of party or politics.

Returning home, I was rejuvenated (and extremely aware of how privileged I was to have been able to take that trip). I've tried to keep that spirit alive. I'm not going to lie: it isn't easy. But the example of John Hume is a great reminder that division and anger can be overcome if we make the effort and put in the work.

- Beth Smits of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email her at news@thehinsdalean.