"When you suppress your wild longing and opt for the predictable and safe forms of belonging, you sin against the rest of nature that longs to live deeply through you. When your way of belonging in the world is truthful to your nature and your dreams, your heart finds contentment and your soul finds stillness" - Irish author John O'Donoghue.
It seems rather churlish or mean to return to a homeland which is deep in crisis and announce to your friends and family that you have just enjoyed the best year of your life in 2010.
But that's how it has been for me over the past few days, as I adjust to the cold while Irish people genuinely worry about their jobs, mortgages, emigration, and what the future holds.
After a year in which the country went bankrupt, the severely cold weather only seems to match the national mood.
And here I am, all full of gratitude for the adventures I've experienced and friendships I have made in Thailand, Malaysia, Spain, and Central America, and wondering how I'm going to turn my new found optimism into some sort of long-term change.
It was thanks to the 'crisis' that I was offered a 12 month career break and after 18 years in the same job it really has been a joy to get a chance to go out and explore the world.
For the first time in my life, I left the 'safe' and 'predictable' behind ... and I had a truly joyous year.
I became a Divemaster, learned Spanish to a decent level, and enjoyed the most fulfilling part of the year when I volunteered among the poorest of the poor in Nicaragua.
While people at home were arguing over pay cuts or who should work on Bank Holidays, I was bouncing into work every day with a smile . . . and not getting paid a cent for my labours.
I hope that my time with La Esperanza Granada has changed me, as it was certainly the most rewarding period in my whole life. It was possibly the first time in my life that my heart found contentment and my soul was still for days on end.
Perhaps I have been lying to myself or settling for too little all along.
In the beautiful city of Granada it felt as though, finally, I had left the tragedies which defined my early 20s, and the subsequent bout of self-pity and hard drinking, behind.
When you see how happy Nicaraguans can be with so little, it makes you think a lot about how Irish people have chased after big cars, big houses, holiday homes abroad, etc., over the past few years.
Do we really need so much? And do these things really make us happy?
So I'm home for Christmas, due back at work in January, and the place is reeling with anger from the economic mess our politicians, bankers, and developers have plunged us into. I wonder if I even belong in my homeland.
But in the first few days at home, I have had reminders of what makes Ireland so special, the genuine warmth of the people which can't be bought out by the International Monetary Fund.
On Thursday, after two long flights, I was met at Shannon Airport by a friendly face. Old friend Hugo didn't mind getting up at 5.30 a.m. in the depths of winter in order to make sure that a friend had a smooth passage home after 12 months on the road.
On the following night, a big group of us gathered in a Galway pub to pay tribute to my best friend, Joe, almost 20 years to the day from when he died in a tragic accident in India.
Joe was Hugo's younger brother and it's only in the last year or two I have realised that I have now known, and been friendly with, the older brother a lot longer than my 'best' friend.
Seeing so many old friends, some of whom had made a great effort to travel on an ice cold night, reminded me of what great hearts so many Irish people have. One old schoolfriend even came up from Cork for the night.
It was lovely to talk to old school friends, Joe's brother, and three sisters, and to realise that the awful shock and despair which surrounded his funeral had given away to a form of acceptance and a warmth about the life of a 24-year old man who was 'larger than life' in some ways.
We celebrated a life which ended too soon, whereas 20 years ago we were just engulfed in the tragedy and grief which surrounds a sudden or violent death.
Joe died 11 and a half months after my little sister Cliona and, for me, Christmas was a time of great sadness, despair, and too much heavy drinking for years. When others celebrated, I just wanted to get blotto at this time of year.
Now, after seeing so much poverty in Nicaragua and meeting so many good people on my 2010 travels, I realise that the tragedy or self-pity which has defined much of my life has evaporated.
I've learned to let these two key figures in my young life rest in peace and move on, even if it has taken me an awful long time.
And I've seen the goodness, the sheer soul, of Irish people who can come out on an awful night to share their memories of a young man who lost his life in awful circumstances.
My 97-year old granny, meanwhile, was 'slagging' me off on the phone for all the cards and letters I never sent from Thailand, Spain, or Central America, as only an Irish granny can.
Like the Nicaraguans, Irish people have soul and a wicked sense of fun.
The country is in turmoil right now, but amongst all the anger, pain, and frustration there seems to be a genuine appetite for renewal and change, if not downright revolution.
To hell with the corrupt politicans, greedy bankers, and developers who have got us into a mess and run the country into the ground. They are no better than the British, who colonised us for centuries.
But when you see the real warmth of people who take the trouble to pay tribute to a fallen friend, long after he's gone, you realise that there are some things in this country that even the IMF can't buy.
And that's why Ireland will rise again.
Why we left the classrooms: by Pauline
3 weeks ago