Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Wee Bit of Belfast

Two days ago, my family and I left on a plane from Chicago headed towards Dublin. It's been two days...but I feel like I've already forgotten what it's like to be in the states. From the moment I left the airport and that cool Dublin air hit me, I felt so at home. Unlike Beijing, my mouth tasted like biscuits--not vomit--and I didn't feel like crying this time. I was sincerely in awe from the moment we got to the city.

First things first: it was time to rent a car, meaning dad had to drive on the opposite side of the road, steering the wheel from the right side of the vehicle. This, coming after an almost sleepless night on the plane. Taking a nearly 100-minute route from Dublin to Belfast. We were all dog tired, but I tried to keep my eyes open as long as possible to watch the road with my dad...and, of course, take in the sights. Now it wasn't a super scenic route, but the gray sky and lush green earth couldn't have fooled me into believing I was anywhere else. On the outskirts of town, we saw some sheep grazing in the hills and little white farm cottages. It was beautiful.

Because we'd gotten so little sleep on the plane, we drove straight to the hotel that afternoon and just enjoyed the view and the breeze. We stayed at a Holiday Inn right across the street from the BBC building here in Belfast. From my daybed underneath the window, I have a perfect view of the city skyline as well as the BBC roof, equipped with a large satellite disc that glows bright blue at night.

It's a lot like Alaska here in Belfast, temperature and weather-wise. The skies are sunny but gray; the air is cool, but not cold. After dropping our things at the hotel, my family and I walked to dinner, about 5 blocks from the hotel, at a place called Crown Bar/ Liquor Saloon. There we all had a great dinner and toasted to a wonderful journey ahead. Following dinner, we all crashed at the hotel and conked out around 7pm. Well, except yours truly, who piddled around online and enjoyed the view & breeze while lounging in bed. It was worth losing some sleep over. :)

This morning we got an early start, beginning with continental breakfast at the hotel, which was actually really impressive for being a hotel buffet. Now I'm always a coffee drinker, but today especially, because there was no way I was going to last without it. Today was my mother's special treat: a trip to the new Titanic museum in Belfast, which opened a year ago in March. Gorgeous place, and really interesting information...but still, my mother looooves that stuff, eats it up with a spoon, so I knew the coffee would have to carry me through the long day. Case in point: we parked the car in the garage at 10:30am...we didn't leave until 7:45 at night.

Titanic Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The last couple hours of that, however, we spent riding around the back of an elongated black cab with a guy named Eugene. He had a thick Irish accent, hoop earring through one lobe, a round belly in loose white tee, and was bald with a great rosy smile. He said "honest to God" after just about every phrase, and he told us a million stories about the city, especially the Protestants vs. the Catholics.

With all the recent/ ongoing riots in Belfast, it was especially interesting to hear about those who had died for the cause and the insane things the Protestants have done to keep British control over Northern Ireland, which they refer to as "Ulster" so as to completely separate their ties to Ireland. There's even a wall built between the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in the city, and I'm talking like 60 feet high. So sad...I've only been here a couple days, but I can't imagine wanting to separate myself from this place. But, I guess people always find something to fight about, don't we?

As Eugene took us into the Protestant neighborhood and let us get out of the cab to take pictures of murals reflecting the ongoing Protestant/ Catholic fighting, he warned us that we may not want to wander too far or stay out of the car too long. Um...what? He followed that by assuring us there was no need to worry, but going later in the day to these neighborhoods meant more people (men) getting home from work, people who may not be too keen on Catholics like us and himself wandering the grounds.

It was so neat, though. We saw several police cars and a few ambulances in the city today, and my mom asked if they still expected rioting. Eugene said absolutely, and said without a doubt there would be riots tonight! That thrilled me; not so much my mother, I imagine. After our tour, we headed back to get the car and returned to the hotel to freshen up before dinner. We took another walk in the city, then headed back and ate at a restaurant next to our hotel called Nando's. I had a healthy pita with a glass of red wine...not exactly Irish fare, but still delicious.

We didn't eat dinner until almost 10pm, and that's another reason this town--this country-- is so similar to Alaska: the sun here doesn't set until almost 11pm...up until then, blue-gray skies. Good because it makes the days seem longer; not good because we get up at the crack of dawn and I end up staying up way too late at night. Curse the sunlight loving Ireland too much to say goodnight!

But once the lights do go out over Belfast--and they do--it's dark in the city. Tonight, as soon as it got dark, I could hear loud voices and chanting. It was wickedly cool to know (or at least assume) that these were protesters. Now, later, I've been hearing lots of sirens, some off in the distance, catching on the wind, and some pretty close, passing by beneath my window. Call me odd, or even ignorant to be so cavalier about something so serious, but the sound of the sirens excites me. Eugene told us the most serious riots are over with; tonight, it's probably more along the lines of random bar fights in the streets. And it's not that I like mayhem (although, to be honest, I do)...it's that the sound of sirens has always kind of lulled me to sleep.

It's a strange thing to make me feel at home, but it always does. No matter what city I'm sleeping in, sirens at night always mean one thing to me: no matter the danger, no matter the pain, you've got someone watching over the city while you sleep. 24/7, somebody's out there with that siren, waiting to pick you up and fix what needs fixing.

When you're nearly 4,000 miles from your bed, it's a comforting thought. Sweet dreams, Belfast.

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