On December 22nd I traveled to Northern Ireland to spend Christmas with my brother and visit his girlfriend and her family in their home in Banbridge, a village in County Down 30 miles outside Belfast.

Flying into Dublin early in the morning, I waited outside for the bus. In the darkness, airport lights sparkled blue, red, and white, and the black road shone from a recent rain. I sat on my suitcase, listening to the voices around me: a serious-looking man in his thirties mumbled into his phone, a father admonished his restless son and daughter, two women in long wool coats chatted softly, and a tall strapping man teased his companions. The Irish brogues and unfamiliar expressions delighted my ear.

On the bus, I found a seat amid the sleepy passengers and settled in for a 1.5 hour drive. At first, there was nothing to see but dreary highway in the headlights and nondescript city sprawl. Music, mostly Christmas carols you would hear in an American shopping mall, played on the radio. As light grew brighter, we left the city behind and I saw for the first time the distinctly Irish landscape. Pastures spread out over rolling hills and flocks of sheep grazed serenely. Hedgerows divided the land into squares like a chessboard. An occasional village or hamlet appeared, and I admired the slate-roofed houses, stone church towers, old graveyards, and an occasional ruined castle. After a semester in the flat, dry plains of Texas, my eyes feasted on the dynamic, deep-green landscape.

The gentleman in the seat next to me looked genial, and I confided that it was my first time in Ireland. He brightened, gave me a hearty welcome, and introduced himself as Robert from Bath, returning home for Christmas. We chatted all the way to Banbridge about Irish music and dancing, and parted with a warm handshake and a “Happy Christmas!”

I stepped off the bus into a small village street, looking around with what probably was a forlorn face. In a moment a short, red-cheeked woman stepped out of a nearby car and came toward me with open arms and a wide grin – my hostess Yvonne! Soon her husband Greer was loading my suitcases into the back of the car and we were off, whipping around the curves of narrow country roads and driving on the left side, which gave me an uncomfortable sensation.

I found myself in the heart of the countryside, passing old farms and pastures and chatting easily with my amiable hosts. We turned into a gate marked “The Old Manse” and drove up the driveway to a large, slate-roofed house standing on a hill, surrounded by rhododendron bushes and mature trees. The house, Greer explained, was built in 1821, and for many years it served as the manse for the tiny church down the road.

Inside, Yvonne made Namberrie tea in a silver teapot and we sat getting acquainted and nibbling soda bread toast. I met their son David, a physics teacher at a school in Belfast. Later, Suzanne returned from work, we picked up Caleb at the bus stop, and I fell asleep early, tired from the journey and the time change. It was a beautiful first day in Ireland.