Marti’s friends Marie and Kevin invited us to visit their hometown, Belfast, so we took the 2-1/2 hour train trip north for a long weekend. Like trains everywhere in this part of the world, the ride was a comfortable and very pleasant experience. There was no indication whatsoever at the time of having crossed a border, from the Republic of Ireland into the Northern Ireland (the U.K.).
Brexit occurred while we were there and, as Marti remarked, we “went to sleep in the E.U. and woke up in the U.K”. The Irish border, both between the Irelands and between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K remains a significant issue for negotiation now that Brexit has occurred. There appeared to be no Brexit celebrations, of the kind seen in London, in Belfast.
Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland and is a compact city of 311,000. Its 19th and 20th century shipbuilding and textile industries have given way to aerospace, defense, and high-tech firms.
Kevin picked us up at the rail station in his Tesla Model 3 and riding in it was a really fun and interesting experience, including an episode that left me laughing so hard I could hardly breathe. More about that later.
One practical matter we noticed right away was that we had to use pound sterling banknotes in Belfast. These are similar but, oddly, not quite the same banknotes as used in the rest of the U.K. They’re printed by four different banks and aren’t accepted by merchants in other U.K. areas. For example, in London you’d have to exchange them at the Bank of England. The sterling coinage, however, was the usual and is accepted everywhere in the U.K. VISA and MasterCard (but not American Express) cards were universally accepted.
Kevin and Marie have a beautiful home and made us very welcome. Though Belfast natives, Kevin’s job has seen them live in places as varied as Paris and Portland, Oregon, so their accents have moderated. Not so with others; we had a cabby one day that gave us his opinion of the IRA and “The Troubles” and I could barely understand a word.
Speaking of cabbies, we took a “gabby cabby” black cab tour one day. This was our own private tour, in a roomy black cab, through the sectarian areas of Belfast, and thankfully Sean, our driver, was easy to understand. We saw large murals of local heroes and movements painted on the ends of apartment buildings and the “peace walls”, and learned from the driver all about “The Troubles” associated with them.
The Peace Walls separate unionist (pro-U.K. / Protestant) and republican (pro-independence / Catholic) neighborhoods. They can be as tall as 45-feet (to prevent firebombs and other projectiles from being tossed over them) and have street gates in them that are closed at dusk. The gates weren’t even regularly opened in the daytime until just a few years ago! This is definitely not some last-century strife, now forgotten.
Belfast is also famous for its “bonfires”. These resemble nothing like the small bonfires of my youth. They’re incredibly large structures built of thousands of stacked shipping pallets and often loom over the surrounding buildings. They’re lit to celebrate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690). People often toss in anything they want to get rid off, like cast-off furniture and old tires. The danger to other buildings is real and, needless to say, the fires increase air pollution. Yet they persist.
We also learned, sadly, that schools remain segregated by religion and even the teacher colleges are similarly segregated, so future generations do not mix with each other. Overall, the cabby tour amplified and expanded on what we’d learned at the GPO museum in Dublin, took 90 minutes, and cost £25 each – well worth it.
We went to the Lyric Theater one night, for a very good performance of Trad. The small space put us right on top of the action and the Irish accents were very accessible. The play was a bit in the “Waiting for Godot” vein and, like a lot of good theater, it really made us think: we were all discussing details and “what it meant” for several days thereafter.
We padded our days with trips to the Ulster Museum and saw nice exhibits of Celtic artifacts, art, artifacts from a sunken Spanish galleon (gold!), and “The Troubles” (tying in with the Dublin GPO exhibit and our gabby cabby tour).
We had some really excellent meals at local restaurants like the Ginger Bistro and, our hostess, Marie, is also a wonderful cook. I’m now, back in Dublin, on a bread-and-tea regime to try to recover my waistline!
Finally, back to the Tesla. It’s truly a technical marvel and I was very impressed with it. Among its many amazing features, Kevin revealed that it has a “Toy Box”: a collection of quirky apps. One of these is called Whoopee Cushion and, yes, it produces farting sounds from any of the seats. There’s a selection of varied fart “styles” (I’ll leave that to your imagination) to choose from and the sounds can be set off randomly or when the turn signals are used. I admit to succumbing to gasping, adolescent hilarity as Kevin put the app through its paces. The Whoopee Cushion – timeless humor, in a space-age car.
Next: The Titanic Experience