Friday, May 31, 2013

Belfast, Nazis, and Tiny Felons

One in three citizens of Belfast are middle-aged white men with bald heads. Not like George Costanza bald. No. Mr. Clean bald. Voluntarily bald. Like Michael Chiiklis. Bruce Willis now. Sinead O'Connor then.
Actually O'Connor is from Ireland, so maybe we came blame them for her career as well.
From Dublin I had boarded an early morning train rolling toward Belfast and what turned out to be a plethora of walking cue balls. I was able to board by simply walking through the terminal and sitting on the train. There were no gates in my way, no conductors checking tickets, nothing. I sat down and waited assuming someone would come down the aisles to check tickets and no one ever did. I suddenly regretted the $40 I had plopped down on the stub.
This would never happen in America. I was once reprimanded at a baseball game for sitting in the wrong seats. The thing is my misreading of the ticket actually caused me and a friend from school to sit in seats much worse than the ones I had rightfully purchased. 
"I'll need to see your ticket for these seats, sir," the attendant had said to me at the time while flicking her fingers at me like you would if you were trying to discard a booger.
"Uh, sure not a problem. We bought these online," I had said.
The couple behind her whose seats we were apparently warming took turns poking their heads out from behind the attendant's bony elbows to shoot darting looks at me. I would have expected the same look if they had caught me flinging dog poop at an elderly relative of theirs.
The whole ordeal ended in my favor with the better seats, but it goes to show the difference in culture. 
As I bounced along the Irish countryside, I realized how nice it was to ride the rails again. I took a train to Chicago in middle school and remembered being enthralled by the experience, but I had forgotten why exactly.
There is a freedom to rail travel. Because you are not bisecting roads and dealing with other motorists, oftentimes you are alone in the landscape. A single moving organism in a grand field ripping through stone tunnels and swooshing past wild gardens and old farms at speeds that would get you arrested in an automobile. And it is so smooth. When you lean your seat back, the rhythym and hum lull you to drift almost as if you are in the dentist's chair hopped up on gas and novocaine, but before the good doctor starts whaling away on your molars.

The scene from my window on the train between Dublin and Belfast.

The relaxing jaunt took just over two hours and had me in Belfast a little after breakfast. 
As I floated out of the train station rejuvenated by the experience and thinking of all the other train rides I would be taking in the coming weeks I began to walk in what I believed to be the direction of my hostel. With no wifi at the station I had been unable to map the trek before departing.
What on my map looked to be a couple of blocks between where I thought I was and where I thought I should be going, turned out to be about three miles. It is very easy in America, a land of segways, golf carts, and elevators to the second floor, for a person to forget just what a distance three miles can be. Add to that foreign surroundings, drivers who are looking to take out your knees if you get too arrogant in your ability to cross the street, and the 35-pound pack strapped to my back like a dead tuna and three miles becomes an odyssey.
After realizing how far I would, in fact, have to venture, I did what any tough-minded world traveller would do - I took a break.
Actually I decided the Belfast market I was passing by was far too interesting to go by uninspected and it looked like they had benches for collecting your thoughts or contemplating a taxi.
The market was split into two sections - food and everything else. On the everything else side I perused several flea market style set ups offering rings and knives and other trinkets. One stand was actually selling American coins. Not old  American coins, just the regular old pennies, nickels, and quarters we all have stuffed safely in our loveseats.
This was an odd thing to see. It was something I had never really thought about. Of course there would be interest in American currency, the same way every young child is captivated by foreign money and assumes it is worth gold bullion in some far off land. 

American money for sale 

What's more is that it was selling for 20 pence each. I pulled out my phone and called up a currency conversion app I had downloaded with ideas of buying the cigar box full of quarters and turning a profit at the currency exhange store. I was disapponted to discover that 20 pence equals roughly 30 cents in American currency. Alas, I would not be getting rich by ripping off flea market vendors in Northern Ireland.
Just as I was leaving I walked by a stand selling old war memorbilia. I have always been a sort of history junkie and was anxious to inspect the collection of knives, buckles, pens, and badges on display. It was not until I leaned over the case and rubbed my nose on the glass that I realized this was a very different type of collection than the ones I had seen in flea markets back home. Every item in the case from the tie clips to the daggars had emblazoned on them a swastika. 

Nazi war memorabilia 

"No pictures unless you are buying!" boomed a voice from across the case.

"I'm sorry I wasn't..."

"No pictures!"

I guess at this point I should have apologized and moved on to my hostel, but the mix of trying to profit off Nazi war artifacts mixed with the abrupt "No pictures!" policy, got to me more than I realized.

"Why not? Why can't I take a picture?"

"Not unless you are buying!"

"Are you also selling bullets that have been pulled out of the peace wall?"

I was referring to a long-running game of sectarian violence in Belfast between the Republicans, members of which would like to assimilate with Ireland and unite the island in one nation, and the Loyalists, who are loyal to the United Kingdom and wish to remain under the rule of the crown.

In the 70s and 80s this spilled into the streets in the form of car bombs, shootouts, and Molotov Cocktalis. 

The city was literally divided in two with the building of a "peace wall" to seperate the two sides.

Peace wall in Belfast

Tensions still run high between the groups and especially between splinter groups within the larger parties, but the violence is more of a memory at this point. If you are industrious and ask around it's not a large task to find bullet holes along the wall.

"No bullets. I don't have nothing from the wall," the vendor replied, no longer shouting.

"Why not? Aren't they around?"

"Have you got no sense? Huh? No one wants to see that stuff for sale here, that's not what we're all about anymore."

"And you see no hypocrisy in saying that when you try to profit from Nazi paraphernalia?" I said. 

I felt perhaps a bit too proud of myself as I left and tried to remember I am a visitor in another country and right or not, I should not single myself out on such a sensitive issue.

On the other hand, I do not like being shouted at. 

My dramatic confrontation with a flea market salesman aside, Belfast was an pleasant city if slightly unattractive city. The memorials on both sides of town made sure the chaotic past which continues to define this area is not far from memory, but modern day Belfast seems much like any other city.

After a hike to drop of my pack at the hostel I marched to Donegall Square to inspect City Hall.

The building offers three free tours a day and upon arrival I was just in time for the 11am.

It is an imposing structure. Built in 1906, the building features stunning marble and stone throughout as well as a dominating copper dome.

 Belfast City Hall

Several statues surround the building, including one of Queen Victoria, and there is also a large Titanic memorial on the west side lawn.

Belfast was, mind you, the lanching point of the infamously ill-fated vessel.

Part of the tour even includes a side table meant to be aboard the ship and thus at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, but the carpenters were three days late completed the piece. Upon returning to Belfast from New York the table was to be installed. Now it sits in a side room in city hall and holds an appraised value, given its' unique history, of $152,000. It was priced a few years ago, before the centennial of the sinking and its' value has likely risen considerably.

Under the dome at Belfast City Hall

During the tour the guide retold the story of the Red Hand of Ulster symbol seen often around the city. According to legend the roots go back to pagan times and a dispute between two potentional kings over whom had the right to rule Ulster, now modern day Northern Ireland. 
The two men agreed to a boat race to settle the dispute proclaiming that, "Whoever's hand is the first to touch the shore of Ireland, so shall he be made the king."
The legend continues that one man, who found himself losing the race, so desired the kingdom that he cut off his hand and threw it ahead to the shore, earning a kingdom and creating a story that has terrified young Northern Ireland children for centuries.

The Red Hand of Ulster symbol, seen in one of the stained glass windows of Belfast's City Hall.

I had already booked a plane from Belfast to Scotland for the next morning for the equivalent of $35 and knew I would only have this one day in Belfast. With just enough daylight after roaming around the Donegall and Victoria Square areas, I made a quick jog to the west side where the peace wall seperated the Shankhill area (protestants) from the Falls Road area (Catholics).

The neighborhoods were covered in murals proclaiming innocence and unfair political practices from myriad different incidents over the years. Every square inch of the peace wall had been utilized to express one opinion or another through paint. If you could somehow look past the hate and tension that's behind these messages, it is quite a beautiful artifact.

The twin spires of St. Peter's Cathedral soared dramatically over the rooftops of stores and houses along Divis Street and drew me in for a closer examination.

St. Peter's Cathedral,Belfast

The Gothic Revival cathedral was completed in 1866 and reaches 180 feet into the sky.

I wandered to the front gates where I was met by a young boy of about 14 wearing plain clothes. At first I thought he was just a neighborhood kid.

"Where are ya frum?" he asked walking to meet me at the gate.

I looked around briefly to make sure he was speaking to me as we'd had no previous eye contact or head nod to suggest conversation would be happening now.

"I'm from the U.S." I said. "America."

"Where in America?"


"Oh, is it pretty thar? I think eh tis. Have ya bean to Boston? That's whur I would lack to go visit soomday."

"Yeah. I used to live in Boston actually."

"Whur are ya friends gooin?" he asked looking over my right shoulder and pointing at a group of three people who appeared to be tourists as well that I had not noticed before.

"Oh, I don't know them. I don't know who they are."

"Call them over here. See if they want to go inside, too."

I looked behind him to the cathedral doors and I could see one of them was open and inside stood a man of average size who appeared to be observing the goings on between the boy and I.

"I don't think I was going to go in," I said, alarm bells and instincts telling me the situation was a bit off. "I was just gonna have a look from the outside."

"No you haff tah see frum the inside. Cam on," he said grabbing up my hand.

"No, that's alright. I'll just take a lap around and get some pictures first then we'll see."

This explanation seemed to suit the prepubscent potential hustler and newly freed I looped around the back of the block and beat a path back to the non-war-torn side of the city.

It could have been a proud neighborhood kid wanting to show off the most beautiful part of his town to a foreigner.

There could have been some Lord of the Flies style robbery and assault waiting for me on the other side of those doors provided courtesy of the local middle school or some of their fathers.

I did not wait long enough to find out. As I made my way back to the hostel, this little scrape helped put into context a feeling I had carried with me since I left the train station - everyone was a bit on edge. The vibe throughout the city was one of caution. In a town splattered with memorials to brothers and daughters lost as victims of car bombings, a town where a large majority of the adolescent and teenage males wear military haircuts, caution is not a bad trait to feature while you experience Belfast.

My expectations were high for Scotland and with my flight leaving in a few hours I turned back toward my hostel. For its' wide range of experiences I decided I could not have picked a better city to spend only one day and absolutely no more in than Belfast. 

I am not saying I will never return, but barring some sort of storm that causes my plane to make an emergency landing at some far flung date in my future, I do not suspect you will find me in Northern Ireland again. 

I bequeth it to the throngs of middle-aged bald men who joyfully call it home.

No comments:

Post a Comment