Goodbye, Belfast

After 205 days, 11 countries and I don’t know how many miles, we’re flying home today. It’s a bittersweet day for all of us, thinking of what we’re leaving behind while looking forward to getting home.

The bags are repacked, ready to go into the taxi that will take us to George Best Belfast City Airport for the short hop to Heathrow in London, then it’s on to hometown airline Delta for the final push to Atlanta.

The assorted items we bought during the trip have been used, sold, donated or tossed, save our dishes and a few other items (including an oscillating fan!) that our friend Eileen has agreed to keep for us.

Lifetime of memories

For per diem purposes, we kept a calendar of where we were on each day. Mostly we were together, except for a couple of Fulbright conferences in the UK and an Irish studies conference in Kansas City that Marilynn attended alone and the weekend in April when Declan and I saw Arsenel play Manchester City to a tie at the Emirates in London.

But we were together someplace other than Belfast for 50 nights, seven weeks’ worth of trips to Italy, mainland Europe, Portugal, Dublin and the Dingle peninsula in the Republic and a week in England’s Cornwall district. We also spent a weekend in the natural beauty of Donegal and another visiting Big Houses in Enniskillen.

Declan spent a semester at a different school, where he excelled in Spanish, Irish history and religion. He also saw lots of professional football, including the local Linfield Blues (twice), Hertha Berlin and Bristol City.

I learned, despite the occasional technology snafu or time zone crisis, that I can work from truly anywhere. And Marilynn immersed herself in Northern Irish politics, which have been particularly turbulent these past seven months, and dived deeper into the publications she plans to include in her next project, on literary responses to the peace process.

We take with us memories of our travels near and far, as well as the people we met and those we’ve gotten to know much better. We think back to those who have opened their homes and their hearts to us and how we tried to reciprocate. But we also look forward to reconnecting with our US family and friends, to chance encounters with neighbors in the street, at the grocery store or at the gym.

We miss our cat, our big American washer and dryer, American plumbing and central A/C, although I do enjoy needing a light jacket in July. Later this week we plan to enjoy milkshakes at Cook Out, share a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts and eat out at Mellow Mushroom and Sushi Avenue. Declan and I also want to split a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal (with Crunchberries, of course).

And then diets beckon for the adults, as do the prospects of returning to their jobs, and Declan heads back to school, just a month after getting out of school in the UK.

Thanks so much for coming along on this journey to Europe and back, although the journey doesn’t end today. No, there are more stories left to tell, so stay tuned. But for now, I’ll leave you with the same scene that we started with on January 3, although this image was taken this morning, our final morning in Belfast.

Thinking of Home on Independence Day

In Belfast, the Fourth of July is … Tuesday. Just a Tuesday.

No fireworks. No smoked or grilled meat on the Big Green Egg. No bonfires (those happen next Tuesday when, thankfully, we’ll be in Portugal). Marilynn and I worked today after spending the weekend in Derry in the north and County Donegal in the Republic.

But that doesn’t mean that Declan and I didn’t get into the Independence Day spirit here in Belfast—albeit a couple of weeks early. Marilynn was at a conference in Scotland, but Declan and I attended the Independence Day celebration at the US Consulate General’s residence with about 500 other mainly Irish people and a smattering of Americans on June 23.

Even though it’s not a holiday here, Irish schools let out on June 30, so everyone goes on holiday right after, making a celebration on the actual day impractical. It was more networking than celebration, anyway, so think suits and ties rather than ballcaps and shorts.

Old friends and new

Declan and I immediately ran into author David Park and his wife, Alberta, who were talking to one of David’s former students and his American fiancée. The Parks have hosted us for dinner at their home in County Down, and we reciprocated with brunch on a spring Saturday. David attended Marilynn’s talk on “Hopdance,” and we all attended his reading at No Alibis promoting the paperback edition of his short story collection “Gods & Angels.”

Declan then wolfed down a hamburger and made a beeline to the back yard of the residence, where he played basketball with the consul general’s kids. With a growing thirst, I passed the Guinness booth in search of my new favorite Irish beer, Yardsman, brewed in Belfast by Hercules Brewing. I had seen a Yardsman glass and was determined to have a pint. Their booth was located in a corner of the yard.

Life, liberty, healthcare

Joining the queue, I overheard a few people on the side talking about healthcare. I joined that conversation, hoping to meet fellow Americans talking about Trump’s effort to undo the Affordable Care Act. Most were non-American officials from the Belfast Titans, the local ice hockey team whose mascot is Finn McCool, the mythical giant who created Giant’s Causeway. One, a former player who played in seven countries (including for the Gwinnett Gladiators in the north Atlanta ‘burbs), relayed the story of an American friend hit by high medical bills when his insurance ran out.

Say what you will about the National Health Service, but no one is turned away. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are codified in the preamble of the US Constitution. But how can one have those things without health insurance? I posit that healthcare is a fundamental right and firmly believe that everyone should be covered.

So on this day of celebration, think about our country and how we treat the least among us. Is it with respect or with contempt? Then think about our country’s place in the wider world and Americans living outside the US, because we certainly are thinking about you on this day of independence.

Sun, Fun (and Birds) at Wetland Centre

Saturday was for the birds, literally. We did the major attractions of Belfast years ago and have visited many others during our nearly six months here. So what’s left to do?

With Marilynn at a Fulbright conference in Edinburgh, the weekend belonged to Declan and me. The nice folks at the Visit Belfast Visitor Centre suggested a day at Castle Espie Wetland Center in Comber, which none of us had heard of. But our road-trip friend Eileen and bird-watching friend Joanna both said it was great, so away we went.

First off, you have to want to get there. We rode into city centre (bypassing the close-by Europa Bus Centre), then walked 15 minutes to the Laganside Bus Terminal near the Titanic Quarter. A 25-minute bus ride landed us in Comber, where we had to find a taxi office and wait 15 minutes for a ride. Fortunately, on the way back, we could pre-book the taxi to arrive minutes before the bus. And, for some reason, the bus delivered us back to Europa, from where we could walk home.

Hides to seek birds

Although it sounds like another big house, Castle Espie has no house—although it once did. Its most significant history was as a limestone quarry and brickmaking works. A recently constructed visitor centre helps set the stage for the wetland centre on Strangford Lough.

After paying for admission and an additional 75 pence for a bag of bird food, off we went. Declan tried to feed the mostly ducks and geese in the captive bird area, but they weren’t having any of it–again, literally. We spent several minutes there before moving into the conservation area, where no bird feeding is allowed.

The meandering waterside pathway through the conservation area is dotted with observation areas and indoor hides where you can watch the birds unobserved while (given the Belfast weather) keeping dry. The first hide looked across the lough. Others looked across the saline lagoon and the limestone lake. The impressive Limekin observatory featured a large standing telescope where Declan could watch the cars on the nearby road.

Former home to limestone works

But from the raised observatory, you could see both across the wildlife centre and across the lough to nearby Scrabo Tower, built on a hill in 1857 to honor “Fighting Charlie,” the third marquess of Londonderry, Charles Stewart. These are the same Londonderrys that built and lived in Mount Stewart, an actual big house we visited last month.

From the observatory, the focus changed from birds to the limestone works, including water inlets, the remains of the brickworks and a pump house. Finally, the path wound through grassland and woods, with lots of areas for young’uns to play and explore.

Since the path through the conservation area begins and ends at the visitor centre, Declan had another opportunity at bird feeding, which was more successful this time. Declan said it tickles when birds feed out of your hand. I’ll take his word for it.

While waiting for the cab back to Comber, we enjoyed snacks in the Kingfisher Kitchen, which looks out over a pond and the lough. Ducks and geese roam freely and even come up to the windows.

I’m not a bird person, per se, so I have no idea what we saw. But I did enjoy them nesting and flying in a place I know is protected.

Pop-Up Pissoir Tames Wild Peeing

I thought it was a myth, this public urinal that rises gently each night from its underground cavern, ready to handle the No. 1 needs of passing punters. I had stood atop its daytime resting place, a slightly larger than normal manhole cover at the top of busy Shaftsbury Square, the intersection where Botanic Avenue meets the Dublin Road.

But at 10 o’clock each night, a curious transformation takes place as the three-man pissoir moves from its subterranean nest. I fail to push the iconic music from “2001: A Space Odyssey” out of my head. Daaa…DAaa…DAAA…PISSOIR! Kettle drums now beat a rhythm as the urinal locks into place, ready for Belfast’s passing drunks.

I feel the need, the need to pee

Drinking lots of tea in the mornings makes me appreciate such amenities as public toilets. I’ve written previously about how cities should provide more public toilets for tourists since we’re already paying taxes on our hotel rooms, transportation, food and attractions. There should be more toilets, and they should be free.

While discussing that initial column with a friend here, he casually mentioned the Shaftsbury Square pop-up pissoir, an entirely new concept for us. So, of course, we had to see it.

From the picture, you can see for yourself what it looks like, but it reminds me strongly of the upright cryogenic pods for space travel you see in the movies or the transporter room of the Starship Enterprise. Instead of “Beam me up,” however, it’s more “Pour me out.” But you’ll also notice there are no doors and no curtains. Two of the cubicles are fewer than five feet from vehicles waiting at the traffic light.

Belfast does a good job with public toilets, although I do object to the 20 pence it charges at standalone toilets. My motto is, “Free to Pee, You and Me.”

‘Urin-ing’ for the truth

I had to know more about the pop-up pissoir, so I called the Belfast City department of sanitation. It took several tries, but a man returned my call one recent morning. He declined to give his name because neither of us wanted to get the PR people involved, which an interview with a named city official would have necessitated.

The Urilift, as this particular model is known, is made by an English company called Healthmatic. It was installed more than five years ago in an area where many pubs are concentrated amid complaints about les pipis sauvages, or wild peeing.

This is verbatim from the Healthmatic website: “As men come out of the pub, the urinal is there in front of them tempting them away from shop windows and pavements.” So do they think men will pee anywhere and on anything? We will, but it’s impolite to point it out.

My friend in the sanitation department says that, anecdotally, the incidence of public urination in that area has dropped since the Urilift was installed. He also said it is moved into position each night by remote control once someone has checked to see whether any obstructions (bicycles, motorbikes, drunk punters looking to take a leak) are blocking the manhole cover.

Lavery’s is one of the pubs a pint’s throw from Shaftsbury Square. The night we went to see the pissoir up close at about 10:30, the sidewalk was overflowing in front of the pub, atmosphere that author Robert McLiam Wilson colorfully described in his 1996 novel, “Eureka Street,” set toward the end of the Troubles:

“I crossed Shaftsbury Square. Though early, the Lavery’s overspill was already out on the street. Groups of unusually dirty youths lounged on the pavement with beer glasses in their hands. As I passed the bar, stepping over their outstretched legs, a warm urinous waft hung in the air outside the doorway. I hated Lavery’s.”

While I have no opinion on Lavery’s, I can say we didn’t see anyone peeing in the streets, which apparently is progress.

Celebrating Father’s Day the Belfast Way

A cool card, a nifty tea mug and a literal walk in the park—what a way to celebrate Father’s Day. Unlike Mother’s Day, which in the UK occurs several months earlier than the US version, Father’s Day is celebrated on the same day on both sides of the pond.

First, Declan and Marilynn gave me a bicycle-themed card, a reminder of Belfast’s place in the annals of bicycling history. John Boyd Dunlop didn’t patent the air-filled tyre (that goes to some Scottish guy named Robert W. Thomson) but he is commonly credited with developing a practical tyre in 1888 to go with a new-fangled invention—the bicycle. Dunlop, who is also Scottish by the way, was a prosperous veterinarian.

Bicycles also play a role in our history with Marilynn’s playwright, Stewart Parker. His first play was “Spokesong,” a musical that takes place in a Belfast bike shop during the Troubles and also during the early years of the bicycle.

They also gave me a great tea mug, with Windsor Park emblazoned on it in the style of a Monopoly card (and one of the ritzy properties because the background colour is blue like Boardwalk and Park Place). We live on Windsor Park, although the post code on the mug indicates the Windsor Park in question is likely the national football stadium, a 10-minute walk away. Regardless, it will be a great reminder of our time here.

Botanic Gardens awaits

Thanks to fabulous weather, we got out and enjoyed the day in Botanic Gardens. We had a special Father’s Day “barbecue” in front of the Ulster Museum. Barbecue is in quotes because they were serving burgers and sausages. But I did discover a delicious new beer: Yardsman, a craft brew from local Hercules Brewing Co. that, according to the website, is filtered through Irish linen. Not sure what that adds to (or subtracts from) the beer, but it was quite tasty.

The 28-acre Botanic Gardens is where south Belfast congregates on nice days. We saw more white limbs than in an albino mannequin factory—there’s white skin, and then there’s Belfast white skin. Dogs playing fetch with their owners. A bridal party taking portraits in front of the Palm House, including two stretch limos I can’t figure out how they got inside the gardens. A woodwind band playing tunes in the gazebo. A line of people a dozen deep in front of the ice cream vendor.

Unfortunately, the bowling green is closed on Sunday. I’ve never lawn bowled, but it looks like fun and I want to try it. Instead, we walked through the gardens, including an out-of-the-way lane none of us had ever seen (where the photo was taken).

The city takes great pride in its parks, and for my money, Botanic Gardens is its crown jewel. Central Park is big and all, and Piedmont Park in Atlanta looks better than it has in the 25 years I’ve lived in Atlanta. But meter for meter, Botanic Gardens can’t be beat for its beauty, for the care city workers show it and for the appreciative, sun-seeking Belfast residents, students and tourists who enjoy it even on the cruddy, rainy days.

Many Trips Down, Many More to Go

Only 39 days left to our Belfast adventure. It seems like only yesterday we were on the front end of seven months in the UK. But now our thoughts already are starting to turn, half way at least, back to life in Decatur.

Restarting all those magazines we stopped. Arranging for our cleaner to go through the house to erase seven months of another family living there. Being reunited with Gunner, our beloved cat. Will she remember us? Will she leave us fecal presents to show her displeasure at our leaving? Going through seven months of junk mail. Reassembling my office. Wondering how many weeds have infiltrated the yard. Getting accustomed again to a humid Georgia summer.

A lot in the rear view

So far, including Northern Ireland, we’ve been in nine countries, seen four professional football matches and a similar number of big houses. We’ve glimpsed masterworks from Rembrandt, Picasso, van Gogh, Michelangelo. We’ve toured at least a half-dozen Gothic cathedrals and about that many scenic coastal towns. Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and London. Doolin, St. Ives and Falmouth. We’ve seen henges great and small.

We pulled 220-million-year-old fossils out of the sand and muck at Lyme Regis. We still talk about the fantastic (and cheap) sushi dinner we had at a Berlin restaurant that had reopened just that week.

I haven’t had the fortitude to map how many miles we’ve traveled in the UK and continental Europe, but I know it’s an eye-popping number. I shudder to recall the many roundabouts where I went the wrong way and had to turn around—especially in Cork.

We’ve dined with several noted authors, including poet Michael Longley, literary critic Edna Longley, fiction writer David Park, playwright Ann Devlin and historian Jonathan Bardon. And we can’t forget Stephen Rea, who helped launch Marilynn’s edition of the Stewart Parker novel “Hopdance” in Dublin on our wedding anniversary.

And more to come

And with just 39 days to go, it seems like we have an impossibly long list of things yet to do that don’t include packing up the flat, getting rid of what we’ve accumulated and making our way home.

We’re going with our friend Eileen to see puffins on Rathlin Island tomorrow. Marilynn has a book reading Monday in Dublin, and another one in Edinburgh on Friday, where she’s going to attend a Fulbright Scholar conference. At the end of the month, she’s off to Derry for a Canadian Association for Irish Studies conference.

At the same time, a good friend of mine from Murfreesboro, Tenn., Karen, will be in Belfast to take in the sights for a few days. As Karen leaves us for Kilkenny, Declan and I will join Marilynn in Derry to visit friends and (at least) see the Grianan of Aileach, a prehistoric stone fort that’s around 10,000 years old. Derry’s a great city we’ve visited several times but is always worth a look. We’ll also spend a few days in Donegal, the county in the northwest corner of the island.

We return to Belfast and leave two days later for eight days in northern Portugal. I really don’t know much about that since Declan planned this trip with Marilynn’s help, but I do know it includes a tour of a football stadium in Braga built at the edge of a rock quarry. And in between our return from Portugal and the flight home, Marilynn’s Belgian friend Béné will be with us. She was a fantastic tour guide when we were in Antwerp, and we likely will be feeble imitators. We also hope to see Stewart Parker’s old friend Sam Fannin, who’ll be visiting Northern Ireland from Spain.

After all of that, once we’re back in Decatur, I think we may need a vacation.

Putting Our Feet Up in Hillsborough Castle

We’ve been in our share of big houses in the past month, but we’d never been invited to actually sit on the furniture. So thanks, Queen Elizabeth!

On Sunday, we took a short bus ride from Belfast to Hillsborough to visit Hillsborough Castle, the Northern Ireland royal residence. It’s only been open to the public on a regular basis since 2014, but the castle is a definite must-see.

Unlike the other big houses we visited, the castle (actually an 18th-century Georgian mansion) sits just off the main drag instead of 12 miles down a winding country lane. In fact, the first marquess of Downshire, Wills Hill, purposefully situated the building so he could see the goings-on in the town. The road out of Hillsborough once wound right outside the back of the mansion, until a later owner paid to relocate the buildings (including a Quaker meeting house) and road farther away. The Quaker burial grounds couldn’t be relocated, so they remain on the property.

Wills Hill was the Secretary of the American Colonies near the time of the American Revolution, and Benjamin Franklin visited Hillsborough. Hill was blamed for “losing” the American colonies in the ensuing struggle. Fact: Hillsborough County, Florida (where I was born), and the various US towns spelled Hillsborough or Hillsboro are named for this Hill.

A nearly hands-on tour

OK, we actually didn’t put our feet up anywhere within Hillsborough Castle. But we were invited by the docent, Elizabeth, to sit on the furniture in the foyer as she explained the history of the building and also to sit in various other parts of the house. Certain furniture was off limits, but there wasn’t a rope barricade in sight. We wandered freely around each room as she explained more about the history of the building.

The castle was purchased by the monarchy as a residence for the Northern Ireland governor after the partition of the island in 1921. These days, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland lives in the castle, as do some junior ministers. But when the royals visit, they stay there, too. Prince Phillip visited Hillsborough just last month, as evidenced by his signature on a large, elegant note pad in one room.

Like other big houses, Hillsborough suffered a catastrophic fire during its history, this one linked to a Hindenburg. Following the death of the German President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934, the warden (who was smoking a cigarette at the time) lowered the castle flag to half-staff, then unknowingly set the flag on fire. The spreading blaze devastated the building, with all ceilings falling save a small round one in a rear foyer.

Declan particularly liked the Irish elk rack over the entry way and the replica tiara (bling, he calls it) on a table in the throne room. Marilynn and I were taken by the portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth II painted by Lydia de Burgh, the first resident Irish artist to paint the queen. On a side note, her nephew is Christopher John Davison, a singer of some renown who took his mother’s surname when he began performing. Too bad Elizabeth wasn’t wearing red in the portrait.

Overall, we were taken with how ordinary the house was. Sure, the rooms are big and the furnishings are exquisite. But there are homey touches throughout, including a table loaded with royal family portraits in the same room where the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in 1985. One expects the queen herself to saunter in and put her feet up on a table (she’s allowed).

One final story: in the banquet hall, there was a fake pineapple on a sideboard. Elizabeth (our docent, not the royal) talked about the parties the Hill family threw that lasted deep into the night. A single pineapple would have fetched 5,000 pounds in today’s money, so a pineapple was prized as a symbol of wealth. Not that anyone ate it, however. Rich families would rent a pineapple, with the same fruit appearing at all the big parties that season, until it finally fell upon itself, spent and worthless at last.