In case you don't make it to the end of this article, a debrief is something I recommend to all volunteers, particularly those who are returning from the global south or a developing context. Personal debriefing has been defined as "telling your story to someone who understands it, until you are heard in such a way as to bring 'closure' to your [volunteering] experience, so that you are free to move on". Below is a short tale that I never shared with anyone until my debrief session at Comhlámh. You can see Comhlámh's 'Coming home' resources here: https://comhlamh.org/resources/
For now though, here's a rather long short story of a jumper and how You Can Call Me Al took on a different meaning to me in Dublin at Christmas in 2017.
"A man walks down the street
It's a street in a strange world
Maybe it's the third world
Maybe it's his first time around
Doesn't speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound, the sound"
What a catchy and uplifting song that is! But those lyrics are somewhat jarring when read aloud rather than hummed along to.
It’s that week before Christmas in Dublin. You know the one where it seems every night you have some type of end-of-year socialising to do. The work gang. The lads from astro football. The catch-up with the old school mates.
It’s a great week of booze. This time it’s 2017, and it’s a Friday. I’m going from one event to another. Crossing from a bar on the northside to meet a few mates on George’s Street. I’d say it’s around 10pm and I decide to cut through Templebar.
"It's a street in a strange world"
It had been just about two months since I arrived home from a nine-month stint of volunteering on the Greek island of Samos. I didn’t know it then but what I was experiencing at the time is known as “reverse culture shock”. I thought it was the pints.
“Jaysus, it must have been a different world over there in a refugee camp”
a well-intended mate may have politely quipped something like that in the first pub. I probably replied with "ah look, I suppose it was but sure it's great to be back now!" and closed up shop.
On my trip across the city centre, I had an answer for him. It was. This world - my home of Ireland - was now the foreign place and I felt like an outsider. In fact, I felt like a travel journalist walking through a marketplace in Hanoi. Like, I know what a market is but I’ve no idea what’s going on here.
You may think that is a stretch but anyone who has returned home from a volunteering trip will tell you that I’m actually downplaying it here.
This is how weird it is:
In Samos, we spent three hours distributing clothes at a cabin in the camp. Men, women, and children would present at the cabin every three weeks or so with a ticket that our team had previously given them. The ticket showed what clothes they needed and our job in the cabin was to show them the second-hand clothes that we had available. We would try and grant people the dignity of checking out the clothes first; sizing them up, or examining for holes or snags. All the while, we’d be trying to keep the queue moving.
Between days in the cabin and days in the warehouse, I started to look at clothes in a very different light.
“Oh nice, this seems barely worn... There’s great heat in this... This is Nike! It’ll make someone very happy”.
A jumper - in Samos - was a game changer. Three weeks waiting for one. An extra layer of warmth at night in the tent. A second outfit. This is what a jumper meant to me.
I was at the junction of Geroge’s Street and Dame Street when I saw the jumper. It was a Christmas jumper. It had been balled up and thrown in the gutter. It was filthy and on closer inspection, covered in vomit. Someone had overdone it.
I couldn’t stop staring at it. It actually looked like it was warm. It could have been useful and the thought did cross my mind to maybe inspect it more, possibly even salvage it. But that really was an idea fuelled by the pints.
Physically, I left the jumper behind but mentally it stayed with me as I couldn’t let it go. I walked passed it and met two or three of my friends for a drink. These were really good friends of mine and we remain close today. I couldn’t do it that night, though. I stayed for a round of drinks maybe two and left to walk home and think about the jumper.
There are tonnes of people who don’t have enough clothes to avoid the cold. And tonnes of people who don’t have enough food to avoid hunger.
Maybe it's the third world
Maybe it's his first time around
Yet, in this particular moment in Dublin, these people were nowhere to be seen. This world had the opposite of not enough. This world had so much. Someone had had so much food to eat and so much drink to drink that their body couldn’t hold it all and they had to vomit. (I won’t lie, I’ve been there on a night out so no judgement here!)
They vomited on their jumper. Thankfully (?) their jumper was only a novelty jumper. It was bought as a joke; to be worn as a joke. Fuck it, it was made as a joke. Where and how it was made, I’d rather not think about.
I went from a place where a jumper was the highlight of someone’s week to a place where it was literally a piss-take. That's how weird it is.
I was walking home, feeling that something is not right. I’m not myself. I’ve changed and I don’t know if I can actually live in ‘the real world’ ever again. How am I supposed to explain this to someone? Someone who only knows jumpers as jumpers and not as lucrative commodities. Someone who innocently inquires if it was a different world over there. I start to think that I might have kinda fucked myself up in the head. That was a Friday night around Christmas 2017 and in January 2018, I was sitting in the Comhlámh's office availing of their excellent debriefing support service.
I’m writing this in 2021. It's morning and it's Spring and I'm here to report that I didn't "fuck myself up in the head". What I was going through was completely normal. Phew. The lows of returning home can hang over a returned volunteer for anywhere from 18 months to three years before like any dark cloud, it starts to clear. If you're currently under that cloud and you'd like to act on it, please do reach out to me and/or check out the resources from the Comhlámh link above.