Belfast

Trip Start Sep 04, 2006
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Trip End Dec 24, 2006


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Sunday, November 19, 2006

This past weekend, Alec and I met up in Paris and headed off to spend a weekend in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. I had joked before about avoiding IRA bombs, but Belfast is actually a very safe city despite its reputation for being sectarian and war-torn. It's still very much divided - there is a definite Catholic area and a definite Protestant area, separated by a high "peace wall" that is closed at night and has been there since the British Army arrived there, ostensibly to keep the peace, in the 1970's - but it has at least been peaceful since the signing and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and in fact, according to a UN report, it's the second safest city in the world for tourists after Tokyo (so no need to have worried, Mom). I had been reading a lot about the history and political situation in Northern Ireland over the last year or so and I think it's fascinating, so I was really interested to go and see for myself what it's like there and see the place I've been reading about. It was incredibly interesting and tons of fun, although ridiculously cold, windy, and rainy (even more so than Nantes, although at least I was ready for it, having been to Ireland last year). Plus, I can't tell you what a nice change it made to be around the Irish for a weekend instead of the French. Nothing against the French - there are some things about their culture that I love, but you can't deny that they are not the most friendly/welcoming/talkative/open people towards random strangers, whereas the Irish couldn't be more friendly/welcoming/talkative/open towards everyone and anyone. I hadn't really appreciated beforewhat a huge cultural difference there is between continental Europe and Britain/Ireland, and consequently how much closer British and Irish culture is to ours by comparison, but it was really obvious this weekend. We got lunch at Subway on Saturday, and the guy who took our order and made our sandwiches asked us where we were from and started telling us about how he has a friend who just moved to Texas last year. That would not have happened in France. Even little things like people saying "Excuse me" when they walk in front of you or thanking you and smiling when you let them go in front of you getting off the bus - I've had almost an entire train car get walk past me to get off the train without saying a word or stopping to let me through, and these are the supposedly charming and chivalrous European men. Anyway, I love Irish people, and if I had to live in a European country, I would choose Ireland, even taking into account the horrible weather, mainly because of how fun and friendly the people are (I noticed this last year, too - both of the times I took a cab from the airport into the Dublin city centre, the driver and I were telling each other our life stories by the end of the 30 minute ride). Plus it doesn't hurt that Ireland is gorgeous.

Back to my trip, though. We got into Belfast Friday evening, and I was happy to get another stamp on my passport (they didn't have any passport controls either coming into Austria or returning to France from Austria...the British are a little more anti-Europe, though, so I expected them to do it). We got the bus to the city centre, walked out of the bus station, and promptly started freezing. Our hostel wasn't far, though. We had planned to go out that night, but cold, tiredness, and my headache led us to turn in early. So we started our real Belfast stuff Saturday morning. They had a cafe for breakfast at the hostel, which turned out to be surprisingly good - Alec had a full Irish breakfast, which is huge...soda bread, sausages, beans on toast, and I don't remember what else, and I had the first bagel and scrambled eggs I've had since I can't remember when. We asked at the hostel front desk about setting up a "black taxi" tour, which is supposed to be the way to see the politically/religiously divided areas in West Belfast, with a guide who takes you around and explains all the history, etc. They called for us, and within a half hour, we were climbing into the backseat of our taxi, with Pat as our guide. He was very lively and fun, and seemed pleased that I had Irish heritage, knew about them (name, where they came from, when, etc.), and that I already knew a lot about the situation in Northern Ireland.

First, he took us to the Protestant Shankill Road area, and pulled over to explain the complicated history of what is known in Ireland as "The Troubles". Both areas, Catholic and Protestant, are full of political murals, expressing political points of view, honoring martyrs, groups, or historical icons representing their particular ideology, showing solidarity with people they feel like they have something in common with, and of course displaying their preferred flags, icons, and name for the area they live in (i.e. to Protestant Unionists, Northern Ireland is "Ulster", to Catholic Nationalists/Republicans, Northern Ireland is "The Six Counties"). I was worried beforehand that it wouldn't be okay to get out or conspicuously take pictures of the murals, but Pat said it was perfectly fine and that people were used to it. We had several opportunities to get out, walk around, and take plenty of photos. The murals in the Shankill were more overtly militant - the most well-known is one with a gunman who seems to be pointing his gun at you no matter where you are - not to mention sectarian (I was particularly disgusted by one with a painting of Oliver Cromwell and a quote from him talking about how Catholicism is more than just a religion, it's a political power, and there will be no peace in Ireland until the Catholic Church is crushed). We also made a stop at the "peace wall", which divides the two communities, and where you can still see damage from Molotov cocktails thrown during the height of the Troubles. People can sign the peace wall now in support of lasting peace in Northern Ireland, so Pat gave us a permanent marker and we signed our names with the date and where we're from.

Then, it was on to the Catholic Falls Road. We made another stop, this time in front of the Sinn Fein offices (in case you didn't know, Sinn Fein, which is Irish for "we ourselves", is the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and is one of the two main Northern Irish political parties who support dissolution of the union with Great Britain and a single united Irish Republic. It's the more extreme of the two, and dominates Nationalist/Republican politics in Belfast). This is of course where Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president and possibly the best known Northern Irish politician because of the peace process, has his office, and is also the location of Belfast's most famous mural, dedicated to Bobby Sands, who died in 1981 at the age of 26 leading the hunger strike in prison for rights for Northern Irish Republican prisoners. He was elected to Parliament while in prison in the context of a campaign for the hunger strikers and the prisoners in general, and is one of the most revered icons of the Republican cause - his death is generally seen as the turning point for the political legitimization of Sinn Fein and the Republican cause, and for more widespread public support of the cause. Anyway, we got to see that particular mural, and then we had a little while to look around the Sinn Fein bookstore. We met the nicest lady there, who was the cashier. She asked us where we were from, and when we said Texas, there was the whole "Oh, George Bush" "Yeah, we actually live about 5 miles from his ranch" "Oh, so you're good friends of his then?" "No, we're not big fans" "People don't care for him much here either" exchange. But then she said, "But Bill Clinton, now that's another story." (Because, of course, Bill Clinton did tons to bring about peace in Northern Ireland during the 1990's, resulting in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Love him or hate him, that is one really wonderful thing he did.) She then started pouring her heart out about how grateful everyone in Northern Ireland is for all Bill Clinton did for them and how wonderful it is to have peace after 30 years of basically war in the streets. She must have been talking to us for 5 minutes, and I was just buying books from her. It was really moving, and she was just the sweetest lady. She also apparently knew our driver really well (which confirmed my suspicions that Pat was a Catholic and a Republican - I was tipped off because he referred to the city as "Derry" rather than "Londonderry" and because he told us in his opinion the eventual solution is going to be a withdrawal of the British from Northern Ireland though he doubts it will happen in his lifetime), and she told him to make sure and show us a mural of George Bush further down the Falls Road.

We went on down the Falls and saw the rest of the murals. Lots of them made commentaries on other political situations with which the Catholic Nationalists feel a kinship - since they see themselves as an oppressed and occupied people who lost their homeland to an invading foreign nation, they had a mural dedicated to the Palestinians. There were also civil rights murals, dedicated to Frederick Douglas, who apparently once visited Ireland, and decrying racism and intolerance in general, and of course the none-too-subtle Bush mural, which depicted George Bush holding handfuls of cash and sucking oil out of a Middle East covered with skeletons, with the caption "America's Greatest Failure". The latest addition was against "Imperialist intervention in Iran". Finally, he took us back into the city centre, pointing out the Europa Hotel, which is the most bombed hotel in Europe, and the historic Victorian-era Crown Liquor Saloon. It was a wonderful tour - incredibly interesting, and well worth the time and money.

After lunch, we headed to the Belfast City Hall, which is really beautiful, and had all kinds of special exhibits for its centennial this year (including the switch with which Bill Clinton turned on the Christmas lights in the city a few years ago). We took a very interesting tour of the building, and I got to try on the councilman's robes and sit in the Lord Mayor's chair when we were in the council chamber. After that, we walked south to see the very beautiful Queen's University Belfast. We took a break to warm up and nap at our hostel before heading back out to the city centre for the evening. My guidebook had recommended a Chinese restaurant which turned out to be very nice and delicious for not too much, so that was a nice treat - plus I got to have my favorite, Mongolian beef. After dinner, we headed to the Crown Liquor Saloon so that we could see Belfast's most famous pub, and so Alec could taste his first pint of real Irish Guinness (and my first since last summer). We had a great night, despite the cold and rain.

Sunday, we slept as late as we could, did the breakfast thing again, and then tried to find something to do. It was so cold that we couldn't do something that required a lot of outside stuff, we had to check out of the hostel at 11am, and our flight didn't leave until 5:40p.m., so we decided to go to a movie. We arrived just in time to see something I've been wanting to see for weeks, Borat. It was hysterical, although the least politically correct thing I've seen in a while. We got a late lunch, visited the Belfast Welcome Centre, which was oddly the only place I saw in the entire city where you could buy Belfast/Northern Ireland/etc. souvenirs (Belfast just isn't too touristy), and then headed for the airport, where our flight was delayed 50 minutes, causing me to miss my train from Paris to Nantes (and naturally it was the last train of the evening). So being stuck in Paris for the night and unable to get back until the first train that left after the ticket window opened at 8, I crashed at Alec's apartment, which meant no 8am French grammar class for me (believe me, I was crushed). I got back to Nantes just before lunch. It was a great weekend, though.
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