Apparently 205 days overseas in 2017 wasn’t quite enough of an adventure for my family, because here we are back in Belfast.
Declan and I have returned for a little over a week, while Marilynn is here for much longer, researching her new book on the literary responses to the peace process in Northern Ireland. She’s doing archival research to establish historic timelines for the books, plays and poems she’ll include in this project.
Marilynn’s also interviewing authors she wants to feature, including poet Michael Longley and novelist David Park. OK, we hosted and were hosted by both writers and their spouses several times while we were here earlier this year. However, it’s quite different to exchange pleasantries and a glass of wine with someone in their house versus querying them about works they wrote decades ago. The earlier encounters set the stage for the current ones.
Marilynn’s also giving public lectures on Hopdance in Belfast and Dublin, in conjunction with Lynne Parker, artistic director of the Rough Magic Theatre Company in Dublin. Lynne is also the niece of the late Stewart Parker, the subject of Marilynn’s second book and the playwright who also wrote Hopdance, a semi-autobiographical account of the amputation of his left leg from cancer when he was 19.
Different this time around
Although fewer than four months have passed since we left Northern Ireland on July 25, it’s a much different experience. We swapped our Queen’s University accommodations along the tree-lined Windsor Park for a serviced apartment along the busy (and certainly not tree-lined) Lisburn Road. Fortunately, the traffic dies down in the middle of the night, but the Tesco truck unloads outside until 11 p.m. or so, with much beating and banging, and the traffic picks back up about 6. Despite being four stories up and behind double-paned glass, we hear nearly everything.
The weather has been dank since the moment we touched down. And while the cold is OK for a little while, it grinds down one’s psyche day after day. The not getting light until 7:30 a.m. and the darkening by 4:30 p.m. certainly doesn’t help.
But that hasn’t stopped Declan and me from exploring our adopted hometown further. We spent several hours our first day looking for Declan a pair of shoes and both of us thermal shirts but to no avail. Then yesterday, we went shopping for Thanksgiving dinner supplies with our friend Eileen.
Gardens and markets
Eileen then drove us to Antrim and dropped us off at Antrim Castle Gardens while she attended her gardening course nearby. The castle itself was destroyed by fire in the 1920s, but the expansive gardens alongside the Sixmilewater River that date from the 17th century remain. It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours, particularly watching the river meander toward a bridge, where it picked up speed due to an elevation change past the bridge. As a heron watched from the shore, children atop the bridge dropped leaves into the river to watch them bob in the now-turbulent waters.
After her class, Eileen joined us for a cup of tea in the gardens’ tea room before dropping us off near the Belfast city centre, where we met Marilynn for dinner at the Christmas market.
I’ll have to admit I had higher hopes for the market than reality revealed. After a time, all of these public events and festivals take on a certain sameness. It wasn’t much different than the Easter market we saw in Prague, save for the lack of a Belfast culinary “delicacy.” But you could gorge on food from around the world, including one stall that sold burgers formed from a wide variety of critters, including kangaroo, wild boar and crocodile. I wasn’t much taken with my cowburger, but Declan liked his Asian noodles and Marilynn enjoyed her footlong German sausage served on a baguette.
While I didn’t see any unique Belfast cuisine, we weren’t surprised at the number of stalls selling items made from wool. And Declan, for perhaps the first time ever, saw his name on one of those personalized tchotchkes every tourist shop has. A small triumph, to be sure, but one more indication that we are back home.