Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Michael Avila grew up in the Bay Area and has been travelling the world for most of his adult life. He moved to Northern Ireland a few years ago, where he has been working with local community and reconciliation groups.

He recently returned from a trip to Moldova as the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine was entering its third month.

Read his bio at the Conversations page

The Oakland Coliseum and the stands of ‘Mt Davis’ – Wikimedia Commons

Steve: What was the first ball game you went to and what do you remember about it? Also, what was the first election you voted in? How do you think both institutions have changed since then?

Michael: I’ll be honest and say I don’t remember my very first baseball game – my parents had season tickets to the Oakland A’s for as long as I can remember, so I was going to games before I had a memory.

But I have two first, foggy baseball recollections. I remember being in the Oakland Coliseum on a sunny day. This was before Al Davis moved his Raiders back to the bay and obstructed the stadium’s lovely views of the Oakland hills with the towering monstrosity we dis-affectionately dubbed ‘Mt. Davis’ so it was a lovely environment, especially at that time before the retro stadium era of the 2000s, where just about every team seemed to get a brand new stadium (except of course for the A’s, which is still the case today).

We sat in the bleachers that day, which was unusual because we’d usually sit in the second deck along the first baseline. It was free fitted cap day, where the first 15k fans or so were given free fitted hats, and I remember the ticketing staff measuring my abnormally large, misshaped 5-year-old noggin and getting my first fitted Oakland A’s hat. Turned out I could only wear it for another 6 months as my head continued to grow at an alarming rate.

What I remember loving most about that experience was getting a large stack of All-Star ballots and voting for different players each time – punching holes in the leaflet and dropping them off in the ballot box as we left the stadium. I remember we were playing the Mariners and it was my first time watching Ken Griffey Jr in person, an experience I’ll never forget.

I also remember my first SF Giants game in the dreadful Candlestick Park. It was the opposite experience – cold, drizzly, foggy and miserable. Even at that age I knew that stadium was a sh*thole. But I got to see Will Clark, Matt Williams and, more importantly, the infamous Barry Bonds, who hit a home run that day and unashamedly became my favourite player. He could steal a base and play the outfield at a gold glove level. Of course, that was before his head ‘blew up’ like my 5-year-old ‘bap’.

The first election I voted in was the 2008 Obama-McCain election. It was a fascinating time to be a first-time voter. Obviously it resulted in our first African-American president and in the end I was proud to have helped that happen; but it was also the first time in my lifetime there was a real chance at a woman winning the presidency, in what turned out to be a very surprising Democratic primary; or the vice-presidency on the other side, with Sarah Palin. (In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro had been the first woman on a national ticket when she was Walter Mondale’s VP nominee in their defeat by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush).

It was also seven years after 9/11 and the start of the war in Afghanistan; and five years into the war in Iraq.

Steve: I vividly remember the day the bombing campaign started in Afghanistan – I was at Shea Stadium and had to leave the game early to go into work…

Michael: That election was also probably the last time we had a true, middle-of-the-road Republican on the ticket. I might have considered John McCain further if he wasn’t hawkish on the war. He was in favor of meaningful healthcare reform and was quite progressive socially. I had profound respect for him and, especially today, I really wish more politicians on both sides of the aisle were like him.

I was 21, so I was somewhat of a late first-time presidential voter. I came from a staunch conservative evangelical and Republican background and that was the year I declared my major in international politics. Had the election been a couple of years earlier, it’s possible I would have gone Republican just due to familial biases.

But that was the year I felt myself separating from the politics and many of the beliefs of my youth. That, combined with the year I spent in Derry and travelling Europe, really changed my life – so it was both a physical and spiritual journey of sorts. All-in-all, it was an exciting and transformative time.

Steve: Tell us about growing up in California and how you caught the travel bug?

Michael: Growing up in California was great – it really was an idyllic childhood, with lots of opportunity and some great times. I’m originally from San Leandro which is a small industrial suburb of Oakland. San Leandro itself was quite boring, but we were close to all the great things the Bay and greater northern California has to offer.

I went to junior high and high school at a small Christian school, which for the most part I hated. However, the one benefit of going to a small school was developing good friendships with some of the teachers. My freshman year history teacher and class advisor was quite young when he started teaching and was well-travelled. He started taking groups of high schoolers to Europe each year. I went four straight summers from my junior year of high school and continued into my sophomore year of college. We went to Germany, Austria, Spain, France, Morocco, Ireland and all of Britain. It was that third trip to Spain that made me realise travelling was my thing.

I think it was a particularly crucial – if not somewhat turbulent – time of my youth, and so travel really became an outlet that I needed. I travelled to Ireland the year my Irish-American grandfather sadly passed away. I knew I wanted to study abroad and after loving visiting Ireland and making those sorts of ancestral connections, I knew I’d be coming back to this island. My college only offered Northern Ireland, which at that time I knew nothing about – but I was studying international politics and once I read more into the history, it was a match made in heaven. I’m happy this is home for me today.

Travel is the constant theme in my life because it helps open you up to different experiences and perspectives. That’s something I’ve became pretty  addicted to. Now I’ve been through the middle east, North Africa and Asia. I’ll be visiting my 29th country, Croatia, this July. Travel has significantly transformed my life for the better, no doubt.

Steve: Your partner is from Moldova and you recently came back from a trip there. What’s the mood in the region as Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its third month? No matter how long the actual conflict might last, how do you think things will change for people there?

Michael: The war is deeply disturbing to me as a human being and particularly now as someone who has family in the region. Moldova is just as vulnerable as Ukraine. People from Moldova and that part of the world are tough people who have unfortunately seen this kind of thing, from Russia and others, many times before.

I think people are quite stoic about what’s happening, but you know the concern and angst is always there. We travelled in April for Orthodox Easter. Easter is a family holiday in Moldova, so you don’t usually see many people out and about Chisinau city centre in the evening. But a large number of people were out on the streets that evening, most of them Ukrainian refugees. It was deeply saddening, but the people seemed to be in as good spirits as they could be. It’s one thing to see the human stories of refugees on the news but seeing it first-hand just makes your heart sink.

Moldova has a small breakaway, pro-Russian region along its border with Ukraine called Transnistria. The capital, Tiraspol, is only about 60km from Chisinau, and Moldova has never been able to control the region since independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Transnistria is really the last bastion of the Soviet Union. There was a lot of concern when the war broke out in February that Transnistria, with its small Russian army contingent and local militia would get involved.

Russia had started stoking tensions there by getting pro-Russian propagandists to shoot RPGs at buildings and blowing up Russian/Soviet era monuments to bring Transnistria into the conflict. It felt very real in Chisinau, but thankfully, nothing has ensued from Transnistria towards Moldova or Ukraine yet, but it’s a constant threat.

As for how the conflict will affect Moldova – and the region – in the long term, the simple truth is thank God for the Ukrainians and the unbelievable fight they’re putting up. From a Moldovan perspective, they are the only thing that stands between them and the Russians. Moldova is not in the EU and not in NATO, so it’s in the same position as Ukraine and much more vulnerable.

I’m not going to make predictions about what’s going to happen as it’s still too early in the war to know anything for sure. However, I do know that this pulls more Moldovans who may have previously looked more eastward, or were on the fence regarding Europe, more towards the west. They have a very pro-EU, western government now after its last election, and have applied to join the EU, which will take time to process. There’s also the potential for reunification with Romania, with which Moldova shares culture and heritage.

But since 2016 I’ve been done predicting how the world is going to go because each passing year just proves how little I know or how valuable any current opinion is. But should Ukraine be able to hold off Russia, I’m cautiously optimistic that this will bring Moldova more into Europe’s orbit and help curb the corruption and oligarchic tendencies it has been plagued with since independence.

Steve: And what do you think might be the end result in terms of broader geopolitics and will it change how people feel about both Russia and the US?

Michael: As I said, I don’t predict things anymore. If Russia had been the military power we thought it was before the war, it probably chose a good time to invade Ukraine in pursuit of an imperialist ambition. The US’s track record in the middle east would make it hard for them to criticise Russia.

I’ve been generally pleased with the US and the west’s collective response to the war thus far. Obviously there is a difference between the Russian government and the Russian people, and I think a lot of suffering will continue to be in store for ordinary Russians as a result of this. Depending on what happens with Putin – and I can’t imagine what Russia might look like without him – I pretty much fear any eventuality. I do think Europe, within and beyond the EU’s borders, will be brought closer by this conflict. In a way I think it has given European nations a common purpose again.

The US is the most difficult to predict and it really depends on how this year’s midterms and then especially the 2024 presidential election unfold. Depending on those results, you’re really looking at two completely different countries and futures.

Speaking with friends from back home that generally tend to be centrists, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of optimism. The narrative seems to be that despite the country’s vast wealth and the ability for many (if increasingly fewer) people to lead decent lives – we’re just becoming further divided. I’ve  lived here throughout all the Trump years but I trust what they’re saying.

Having come from that staunch evangelical Christian and conservative background, I was always keenly aware that this division exists and could rear its ugly head at any time, even before Trump. It is still mostly a culture war, but the potential for conflict does exist and the US isn’t immune to it, despite what I think is a quite naïve assumption by many Americans that it’s unlikely to happen.

I think if you get a somewhat sane government coming from these next election cycles that the US’s standing in the world will remain strong. However, if divisions are further entrenched, I think we will lose some ground to the likes of China and potentially a more unified Europe. Of course, if the divisions really are that bad then it’ll be the end of American hegemony.

I don’t really fear America itself losing some power but more of what that might mean for the parts of the west I love and now call home. Though it’s an imperfect system, I think the broader western system is the best system we’ve developed so far and the other offers on the table look extremely regressive, at best.

I think it’s fair to say that no matter what comes from the war, even with any of the worst-case military scenarios, Russia is seriously damaged no matter what.

Steve: Given that you’ve been working here in community relations and hate crime resolution, what problems do you think the US and NI have in common, and which are distinctive – and most pressing – to each place?

Michael: In terms of parallels between NI and the US, I don’t want to do the “We both have an “s-word problem” that’s become cliché at this point, but it is true. The parallels between the legacies of sectarianism and slavery are uncanny. Racism and sectarianism aren’t separate things, even if they manifest themselves differently in different places. The treatment of people and their lived experiences of both these heinous behaviours and attitudes is quite similar in both countries.

I guess what’s changing in NI now is, with so many newcomers arriving from abroad, some of the racial tensions are really taking on many of the same characteristics of race relations in the US as society become more diverse.

For NI’s community sector, with that diversity – and considering the slow continuation of the peace process however tenuous it is – we really should be moving future projects, initiatives, legislation and civil society away from traditional ‘green and orange’ discussions and dialogues and towards a more pluralistic discussion of what it means to live and thrive here over the next 30 or so years.

I know it’s annoyingly easy for me to say but it’s time we concentrate more energy on the future and less on the past. Not forgetting it of course, but truly and completely learning from it. Locals have a lot to learn from newcomers with different perspectives, and vice- versa. There’s also a danger in both societies of paying lip service to controversial issues rather than confronting them, which usually only enables inaction.

The bottom line is wherever you are, treating people badly, no matter who they are, is wrong. We ought to treat others how we want to be treated and by doing so, we can shape the society we want to live in. Yes, it’s difficult to figure out how to do that, but I don’t think it’s difficult to embark on those first steps, together.

Steve: What do you think of the quality of politicians the two societies have to offer? One of the things I was heartened by in the recent NI elections was the number of young candidates standing for election – how relevant do you think modern politics is to young voters?

Michael: Believe this or not, I’m much more hopeful about NI and its future than I am about the US. I mean that politically and otherwise, and I think this last Assembly Election is the start of that positive change. That’s not to say there’s not some rough political years ahead for NI, because there clearly are. But we see the more ‘middle ground’ parties – less concerned with identity and more concerned with day-to-day issues – continue to grow.

I’m aware of local cultural and identity divisions here that have parallels with the political and religious divisions that permeated my youth and what I was brought up to believe. But I think having a Nationalist party win the majority in this last election is a positive sign that society is moving forward, even if I myself may be more ‘middle of the road’. It shouldn’t be underestimated how momentous a moment this is.

I’ve always viewed most European nations as having more pluralistic political discourse than the US because they do – I’d even say NI does, now. We have two viable options for governing ourselves in the US and both parties are hostages to lobbyists. Every western country has lobbyists by the way, it’s just more uninhibited in the US.

Extremes on the left and right have been drowning out most Americans that I still think are in the middle, even if that idea seems rarer than it used to be. This is a result of years of unfettered propaganda on our TV screens and airwaves, and certainly social media has accelerated that process.

Ironically, we like to look down on places like Russia who have polluted the minds of several generations to fulfil the political aims of an elite few. But we’re starting to see that madness permeate American society at alarmingly high levels of government and civil discourse. What happens when you have nearly 40% of society that openly want to be lied to? I don’t know where that goes, but it can’t be good.

I’ve always appreciated Europeans and their outlook on life. It’s tragic, but having conflict on European soil for pretty much all of recorded history has led to Europeans having a much more grounded outlook on the realities of political decision-making. Though it’s far from perfect, since the Second World War, Europe has found ways to work together.

We haven’t had the reality of conflict on our own soil since the 1860s. As tragic as the US Civil War was, it’s relatively small compared to the collective memories Europeans hold. Most Europeans only have to walk out their front door to be reminded of these legacies and, crucially, appreciate how their past conflicts were resolved.

The comforts Americans have enjoyed for a very long time are getting harder to come by for many, so combined with what I said earlier about people wanting to believe in nonsense, the next couple of years are going to be interesting… if not potentially terrifying.

Steve: Like many Americans abroad, you’ll presumably be voting remotely in the next couple of election cycles, but what’s your sense of the political picture in your home state? What are the big issues that will drive voters? And with more people voting in Los Angeles county than in about thirty states combined, does the Electoral College need to be reformed?

Michael: Actually it’s a bit more convoluted than that. I vote in Texas, as Austin was the last place I lived in before moving to NI. But I think it’s important to touch on the situation in both states, as most of my voting career and life in the US has been in California.

The economy, as it always is, will be the key issue – in California and just about every other state. California has two cost of living crises: the cost of actually living in the state, which has plagued the state over the last 10 years or longer. And that’s an issue for almost everyone: even high-earners are getting priced out of places like the Bay, LA and San Diego.

Then there’s the impact of the current global cost of living crisis, which has only exacerbated what was already a very difficult economic situation for many  Californians. Plenty are simply moving out of the state because of those rising costs, although this has been pretty much true since the early 2000s when I was in high school.

A few demographic and economic shifts will shape these next midterms. I think you’ll see more districts going red – and probably greater support for independent or libertarian candidates – especially in places like San Diego with a strong military presence.

I also see many people who would have traditionally either been Democrats or in the middle swinging to the right as they are upset at not being able to afford to live there. Many see California’s Democratic establishment as consisting of woke ‘lip service’ politicians that economically aren’t that much different than the right (and they are right about that). I’ve always said California isn’t nearly as ‘liberal’ as it’s made out to be and a lot of it is pandering. I guess that’s not surprising in one of the world’s wealthiest regions, but certainly frustrating for people who live there who really are fighting for a more equitable society.

A lot of people from the left and the right have been disgruntled with Governor Gavin Newsom, especially over the pandemic, and unsuccessfully called for his recall in 2021.

Californians tend to overreact to things, and I mean that from both sides of political spectrum. I think the state has performed so well economically since its inception in 1849 that many people have lost sight of real problems, which I think is a real problem. I think a wider sense of nihilism is present in California too, even if it takes on a uniquely Californian flair.

But California will stay blue in the presidential election.

Man, Texas is interesting. I think the state is experiencing the opposite swing of California. Whereas I feel California will go slightly redder in the mid-terms, I think this is a temporary, election-by-election swing that we see more often than people think in California. Whereas Texas is a ‘destination state’ where many people, from many places and diverse backgrounds (particularly from the coasts and other overpriced urban areas), are moving to. So, I think you could see quite a few districts, particularly in the suburbs of its major metropolitan areas, shift blue. And I think this shift is more permanent because these are people looking to stay and make a life in Texas.

Again, I don’t think Texas is in danger of becoming a blue state any time soon, but there is a shift happening. We saw it in the last presidential election with Biden receiving 46.48% of the vote, more than 3% more higher than Hillary in 2016. (To be fair, Trump stayed consistent at 52%, so it may just mean fewer third-party votes, but it’s representative of something). Texas will still vote for a Republican in 2024 but I think it’ll be closer than most elections since the traditional ‘southern Democrats’ went bye-bye in the 1970s and 80s.

As for the Electoral College, yes, reform it. Even a kindergartener will tell you it’s an outdated and unrepresentative system.

Steve: Talk a bit about Avila Media as a travel site, The Underbelly and your other media ventures – what’s ahead for content creation as you see it? Is there an economic model that works?

Michael: Avila Media really has become more than a travel blog now, though that is its roots and will continue to be a part of its overall theme. Really, we’ve doubled down on community and heritage digital media and journalism projects. “Here-ish” is the latest, looking at people who have chosen to make NI their home. We’ll continue to put out two or three of these series per year, as we have built good relations and working partnerships with several organisations that are keen to support this kind of work and awareness raising.

We aim to branch out in this next year to conduct more interactive workshops, exhibitions and heritage events locally and across Europe, while we’ll start marketing beyond the ‘third’ sector to private businesses to build our reputation as a PR firm.

The only aspect that’s difficult right now is time. I’m splitting my workload across multiple roles and projects, which I think is a phase you must go through while building your ‘own thing’. But it’s an exciting time because we have loads of ideas that we will eventually get to.

As for an economic model, I think staying true to our roots as a social enterprise is key. Of course, it is great to avail of grants and funding for projects, which helps us employ local artists, journalists, civil society members and institutions to partner with and really builds our ‘community first’ culture and brand. What we need to do now is build a sustainable business model that appeals to private businesses as well as the voluntary sector so that our work becomes more sustainable and can be pursued closer to full time.

The Underbelly is a passion project that has real potential as a business. The problem is this really would require a near full time effort to do it right. It is the best idea my colleagues and I have come up with so far – uplifting NI’s emerging and now thriving food and drink scene. But it isn’t something we can give less than full effort towards, so we’ve put it on hold until we get that time. I do think we’ll get back to it in the future.

(Read Michael’s 2018 piece about the influence of the late culinary and travel writer Anthony Bourdain here)

Steve: And finally, back to baseball… MLB is in the middle of another push to expand its international appeal – as a global citizen, what do you think America’s national pastime can bring the world?

Michael: The number one complaint I hear in non-baseball countries is, “Oh, the game’s too slow.” But is this a bad thing? The great thing about baseball is it appeals to die hard and casual fans alike. In fact, I feel like it has thrived for nearly two centuries because of that. Anyone who understands the intricacies of baseball can tell you that there’s rarely a dull moment – you just need to know where to look.

It’s a game of ‘bursts and sprints’, for sure But it’s also an intricate mind game where most of the excitement and suspense is in the mind and momentum can shift rapidly at any moment. It’s also a game that if you missed the past three innings standing in line for a beer you can just pick it up where you left off.

In a global culture where all the entertainment you’d ever need is right at your fingertips, we may see a resurgence of slower-paced forms of entertainment and sport that appeals to the strategist in many of us, while still allowing the casual fan to enjoy a day in the sun or a night out with friends at the ballpark. Perhaps baseball will become the long form ‘podcast’ of an increasingly fast-paced sports and entertainment world.

Most importantly, baseball is a great equaliser – you get this great sense of camaraderie and common purpose in a ballpark, even with people you don’t know and may not have much in common with. It’s about the banter you can have catching up with old friends under the stadium lights. I think that’s something that can appeal to all cultures.

Beer helps too.



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