All Roads Lead to Belfast City Hall

While Belfast City Hall may not be the physical heart of the city, it certainly embodies its spiritual heart. Although we’ve been in and around the building on each past visit to Belfast, we’d never taken a public tour until last weekend.

It was well worth the 45 minutes to learn about the history of the city, the building and the city’s governance structure, which features 60 councilors for a population of 330,000. There is also a new multi-room exhibit on Belfast that you can view.

Center of it all

The city’s core bus network consists of 12 lines that begin and end around Belfast City Hall, so pretty much wherever you go, you’ll glimpse the imposing, yet welcoming Baroque Revival building completed in 1906. Before 1888, Belfast was a town, but it was declared a city in that year by Queen Victoria.

Of course, the burgeoning city needed a new building, so the city fathers knocked down the White Linen Hall and built this new edifice for 360,000 pounds. The building features five domes, the tallest rising 173 feet. The largest dome is at the center of the building, with an opulent grand staircase leading dignitaries and visitors to the upper floor.

We got a glimpse at the deputy mayor’s office, the robing room where councilors formerly donned robes for meetings and the council meeting chambers. By the way, councilors still wear robes on special occasions, although members of the Sinn Fein party generally refrain.

During a council meeting, which takes place on the first working day of the month, the lord mayor sits on one short end of the room on a dais, with risers on both long sides with tables and comfortable chairs for the councilors, who are arranged according to political party. The press corps occupy tables in the middle, with spaces for dignitaries on the fourth wall. Members of the public sit one floor above the council chambers on the long interior side of the room. The council chambers and three large meeting rooms are paneled with Irish oak carved by Harland & Wolff artisans.

Our knowledgeable and friendly tour guide gave those who wanted an opportunity to try on a councilor robe and to sit in the lord mayor’s chair.

Lord mayors and memorials

The largest meeting room, the Great Hall, was destroyed in the Belfast Blitz in 4 May 1941, a German attack that killed 1,000 in Belfast. The hall was rebuilt in 1953 and features seven original stained glass windows that were moved to the country before the war began. During the tour, we saw workers either setting up rooms or tearing them down, evidence of how much use the city hall receives.

Each lord mayor, elected from among the councilors, now serves a single one-year term, and after it has his (or her) picture painted in a style and by an artist of his choosing. Those portraits are moved once a year to make way for that year’s mayor.

You’ll find a number of statues and memorials on the grounds, including the Titanic Memorial remembering those who lost their lives in the 1912 sinking. There’s also a memorial to Sir Edward Harland, who once headed Harland & Wolff and served as Belfast mayor in 1885-1886.

Unlike many civic buildings, Belfast City Hall is open nearly every day for tours, and the building and grounds are in use almost daily for public events. I’m sure those who frequent its halls lose sight of how impressive the building is. The exterior features Portland stone, while the interior is adorned with Italian marble.

And, if an impressive interior and expansive grounds aren’t enough, Belfast City Hall features an outdoor lighting system that can illuminate the building in a literal rainbow of colors.

Finding Quality in Every Effort

I was saddened to hear about the passing last month of professor and author Robert Pirsig, best known for the 1970s classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

I first read the book during the early ‘90s, during a time of professional turmoil, finding much comfort and direction from its pages. I still think often about Pirsig’s take on Quality, which assumes almost mythical proportion (including status as an uppercase word). Occasionally, I’ll take my battered paperback copy down from its shelf and thumb through its worn pages, refreshing my memory as to the book’s importance in my life.

Quality as a driving force

If you haven’t had the pleasure, the book is ostensibly a fictionalized autobiography about a father-son motorcycle journey from Minnesota to California. But it’s much more. Pirsig takes a deep dive into writing and the subject of Quality, which he believes is a fundamental force in the universe. The motorcycle, the road trip and the relationship between father and son are merely backdrops to the discussion of Quality.

The philosophical discussion of Quality isn’t what interests me. I relate more to the idea of having Quality in one’s life and in one’s efforts. One of my personal mantras is, “If it’s worth my time, it’s worth doing right.” Personally, that means finding the most efficient way to cut the grass, put away the dishes or arrive for a meeting on time.

Professionally, Quality means not just doing my best but doing what’s in the best interests of my clients, based on more than 30 years as a professional content producer. Admittedly, it can be frustrating when the client goes in a different direction, but I take solace in knowing that my first effort was an honest attempt to fulfill the assignment. Ultimately, I get paid for giving clients what they want—even if I don’t think it’s what they need.

There are no shortcuts to Quality as an ideal.

Guy book? You be the judge

“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” may be more of a guy book. My English professor wife couldn’t get into it, and she reads widely. It can be a difficult read, mainly because the protagonist isn’t always a nice person. He is fighting his own demons, including a past that includes a stint in a mental institution and a course of electroconvulsive therapy, which altered his personality. He is sometimes short with his son and can be a real pain.

But who among us is always calm, always rational, always in control?

If only for Pirsig’s take on Quality, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is worth a look. I know for sure that I’ll be returning to its pages soon.

Europe Drives Motorists to Public Transportation Better than in US

Europe beats the US all to hell in terms of transportation. I realize that part of the reason is large parts of Europe are compact, compared to the spread out United States. Still, it’s fairly easy to move from city to city on a train (preferred) or a bus, and then within a city using a subway, tram or bus in Europe.

When traveling, it helps that we plan to stay near the center of these cities to take advantage of the transportation. But even traveling to Potsdam on a day trip from Berlin during a recent vacation was easy and fairly inexpensive. We bought a seven-day Eurorail pass, which allows free transportation on the days we designate. They weren’t cheap, but it’s a relief knowing that most of our major transportation is paid for. Sometimes you have to pay extra to take high-speed trains or book a reservation on a particular train, but those costs are modest.

In Berlin and Amsterdam, we bought tourist passes that included transportation. So in addition to free or reduced admission to certain museums, the buses and trains were included. The Amsterdam passes alone were more than 200 Euro total, but we visited enough museums to more than recoup the cost, not counting the half-dozen subway and tram rides we took.

Cyclists and bikers everywhere

That’s not to mention the bike riding. Many European cities are compact, making it easy to get around by bike or motorbike. Few riders had helmets, but I never saw a crash, even among pothead tourists in Amsterdam. We even saw small children riding with their parents on bikes and tons of kids on Razor scooters.

I believe the reason they’re so popular is the proper infrastructure is in place to support it. Dedicated bike lanes are placed next to sidewalks, separating cars from bikes from people in many instances. Bike parking decks rise several stories next to the central train station. City-supported rental bikes schemes let tourists live like the locals while giving the locals a cheap way to grab a bike and go.

A friend in Antwerp said the local bike scheme is 40 Euro a year for 30 minutes’ bike use at a time. That’s enough time to check a bike out, pedal to the store, check it back in, shop, then rent another bike for the return trip.

I also think it helps that driver education is a much bigger deal in Europe than in the US. Getting one’s license is difficult and takes considerable practice. Many young drivers take the test two times or more before passing. Because those skills are taught for a longer period of time, I think they become more ingrained.

You will find the occasional asshat tearing down our street in Belfast, but for the most part, I see drivers using their turn signals, letting other cars in and observing the pedestrian crossing signs. I was amazed to see rush hour traffic on a motorway in Amsterdam evenly spaced, instead of cars sniffing up the tailpipe of the cars in front.

Getting out of our cars

Governments that truly want to serve constituents should make the necessary investments in transportation infrastructure beyond the car. Bike ridership might be low in your city, but rather than use it as an excuse to build more roads, leaders should explore why it’s low and ways to get people out of their cars.

Atlanta has MARTA, but its track configuration was designed to appease politicians rather than move people from where they live to where they work. Attempts are being made to address this, but those infrastructure improvements will take decades. In the meantime trains run barely frequently enough during rush hour and not nearly often enough otherwise.

Unfortunately, I don’t think America will suddenly lose its love of the passenger car and embrace the train, the bus or the subway anytime soon. But savvy leaders in certain areas are recognizing the importance of transportation infrastructure beyond the car to attract younger workers who increasingly are learning to drive much later—if at all.

They can look to Berlin, to Amsterdam and to Antwerp for examples of how to successfully marry roads, rails and bike lanes for the betterment of all.

Free to Pee, You and Me

I’m visiting your city, seeing your sights, eating in your restaurants and staying in your city’s accommodations (frequently paying a visitor tax). The least you can do is provide me a few free places to piss.

I’m talking to you, Venice, with a visitor tax and seemingly one pay toilet in the entire old part of the city, despite posting 500 signs for it. You can’t provide free toilets on the Venetian island of Murano, yet you can pay someone to collect toilet tolls? I’m talking to you Berlin, which had public facilities where you wanted to charge me 1 euro.

I’m talking to any bus or train station with pay toilets. I’ve paid for my ticket, which helps finance your operations, so give me someplace to go (literally). In Prague, you had to pay to pee even in places you had to pay to enter. We paid the equivalent of 20 euro to climb the Petrin Tower yet had to pay another 10 crowns (about 40 cents) for the pleasure of pissing there.

Toilet.jpgThere also are places that deserve praise for their potty policies. Lyme Regis has free public toilets about every 100 metres along the waterfront. Marilynn said there were no toilet seats in the bathroom, but, hey, it was free. Failing public facilities, many cities have McDonald’s, what I call America’s Pit Stop. But, in Prague, you had to pay 10 crowns there, too.

What is it with the French and public peeing?

It’s no wonder that cities like Paris have a problem with what they delicately call les pipis sauvages, or wild peeing. We didn’t experience this (fortunately), but there apparently are places in the City of Light that stink to high heaven, especially in summer. They’ve installed 400 free, self-contained WCs in Paris that are free, but we also saw a pay one in Prague.

The latest French advance against a tide of urine is the uritrottoir, basically a colorful box over sawdust, straw or woodchips on a public street for people to place “deposits.” When full, the device signals that it needs to be collected, and the bedding is later used as compost in city gardens.

In the 19th century, the French came up with the concept of the pissoir, which you can figure out from the name. We saw several of these between the Olympic stadium subway stop in Berlin and the stadium, basically covered places to take a leak. But since we saw just as many people pissing in the woods along the same route, I’m not sure they are working.

Up-close encounter with les pipis sauvages

I knew this would be a blog topic in the early days of the trip, and I’d written a rough draft on the train from Prague back to Berlin, from where we’d fly back to Belfast. After eating at a great new sushi restaurant and visiting the DDR Museum, which documented life in East Germany under Communist rule, we were walking back to the Alexanderplatz train station along the main avenue at about 9 p.m. Alexanderplatz has wide sidewalks, at least four driving lanes and room for a tram. This ain’t no alley.

And then we saw it—a German punter taking a leak on a small bush along the sidewalk, beer in one hand and I’m not sure what (but have a really good idea) in the other. Fortunately, he had his back to us, but his front was on view to anyone driving by or on the tram. Judging by the fire-hose strength of the stream, this guy really needed to pee.

I can’t remember ever peeing in the street, but I understand the overwhelming urge to go. We will go to great lengths to avoid pay-as-you-go policies. I’d rather stop in a restaurant, order a meal or a drink and partake of their facilities rather than outright pay to pee someplace else. I’ll cross my legs and think dry thoughts for an hour, rather than flip a train station attendant 50 cents to partake of the plumbing.

This must stop. I call for a Urination Declaration, demanding free public toilets for tourists. Because peeing (and pooping, for that matter) are fundamental human rights. We all gotta go sometime, and it oughta be free. Our motto is, “Free to Pee, You and Me.”

The More You See, the More It Looks the Same

Eating the local food. Seeing the local sights. Buying the local bangles. Watching the “drunkie cab” pass by. Five European cities in 14 days, and I’m struck by the sameness of a lot of it.

I’m in no way comparing Museum Island in Berlin to the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague or downplaying any of the sites we saw. But I am comparing how tourist destinations draw the same tchotchke place after place, although often with a local twist.

In every place, there is the tourist bus and, if location permits, the tourist boat. We did both on this trip. You’ll find an overabundance of souvenir shops, which we never set foot in except to buy a museum pass in Berlin. You’ll find those designer stores that normal people don’t shop in, charging way too much for weird-looking clothes with huge, gaudy designer labels. Horse-drawn carriages, pedicabs and the drunkie cab, our name for those rolling bars where (at least) half-drunk people pedal their way to further debauchery. And, I almost forgot, something to climb on to look over the city, which we also did.

Marilynn visited Prague in the fall of 1990, just after the people threw off their Communist shackles during the Velvet Revolution. She recalls a very different Prague from what we saw. Of course, most of those changes are positive.

But when did Prague become known for Thai massage parlours, where you can have fish eat the funk off your feet in a storefront window or get a massage in view of passers-by? We spotted nearly a dozen such places, including several that obviously have the same ownership. We saw three wax museums and at least two “museums” of torture.

And I’m not sure what to make of the Museum of Sex Machines, which Declan and I passed on our first morning in Prague. I didn’t want to stop and stare, but I did glimpse what appeared to be dildoes mounted on some sort of rolling contraption, similar to a water wheel.

A friend of ours, during lunch at a local, nonchain restaurant, said that hamburger bars had largely replaced pizza parlours as the tourist eatery of choice. She also told us about the trdelnik, a local “delicacy” of dough dipped in sugar and cinnamon, wound in strips on a cylinder and slow grilled rotisserie-style over a wood fire. We had seen several trdelnik stands in the extended Easter market near our hotel and a couple of storefront locations. She’s been in the Czech Republic since 1995 and had never heard of this dish until very recently.

Declan was determined to try Prague ham, which as far as I could tell, is, well, ham. His father grills pork frequently on his Big Green Egg, to the raves of nearly everyone. But hey, when in Prague…

Running on Empty … and Still Prague to Go

You get to the point in any long vacation where the sameness takes over. This vacation’s unfortunate victim of this phenomenon was Prague, an 11-hour, two train and a bus journey from Paris. But Marilynn received a Fulbright grant to give a talk at Charles University in Prague, so to Prague we went.

We stayed at the university hotel in a huge room on the second floor, with high ceilings, a wood floor and intricate painted beams that date from the Baroque period—and a view of the Thai massage parlour across the street that started early and went late. Old Town is the center of tourist way in Prague, so we had a front-row seat to the crowds, the revelry and the loud stag parties. Fortunately, the room had solid wooden shutters, and our sleeping areas were a good 40 feet from the windows.

The first morning, Declan and I checked out our immediate surroundings while Marilynn gave her talk. In addition to those massage parlours and too many souvenir shops to count, we found a small storefront shop that sold babushka dolls for nearly every professional football team imaginable. English Premier League, lesser English leagues, La Liga, national teams—there had to be hundreds. The store also has nesting dolls for popular movies (Harry Potter) and TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory.” It was a breath of fresh air amid the stale sameness.

Time to head home

After lunch with Marilynn and her university hosts, we walked to the Old Town Hall to watch the medieval astronomical clock chime the top of the hour. The clock, installed in 1410, is the oldest working clock in existence. At the top of the hour, Death chimes in, while the Apostles pass through two windows above the clock face and rats look on from the edges. Other dial faces show the sun, moon and astronomical details, while the third marks months. It attracts large crowds, so you have to jockey for a good look. Since we were staying close, Marilynn nipped out that night for another look when the crowds had lessened.

We also climbed the Petrin Tower, a one-fifth size replica of the Eiffel Tower that sits atop a steep hill. The tower and surrounding park are served by a funicular (think Incline Railway in Chattanooga) using timed tickets that also work on the city’s tram/bus/subway system. The tower affords impressive views of the city both at the midway point and at the top of 299-step structure. Disabled folks (and the wimpy) can take an elevator to the top, but that’s just cheating if you are able-bodied.

The Charles Bridge, dating from the 14th century and begun by King Charles IV, is another Prague highlight. It’s closed to vehicular traffic, giving people plenty of opportunity to peruse the 30 replica statues that line the sides and watch the Vltava River flow by (or take selfies). Three impressive bridge towers “protect” the structure.

This Bud is true

At a Chinese restaurant that was doing a booming business among the Asian tourist trade, Marilynn and I tried our first Budweisers, the original Budweiser beer that predates American Budweiser by nearly a century. All of the Czech beers we tried were delicious, but Budweiser stands out because it is so much better than the US version, which I use only for grill marinades.

Declan and Marilynn visited the Old Jewish Cemetery, the largest in Europe, that last accepted interments in 1786. Declan particularly liked the twisted grave markers and the realization of how old the cemetery is. They also toured three decommissioned synagogues, including the “really cool” Spanish synagogue, Declan says. They took lots of pictures for me, and Declan kept his commemorative yarmulke.

We tried to visit Prague Castle, the 9th century castle considered the largest in the world, but there simply were too many people. On the last day in the last city before starting the return trip, it was too much to attempt. Instead, we circumnavigated the castle walls, saw what we could see, and called it a day.

Pastry Aplenty in Paris, But Where’s My Tea?

Who do I have to @#$% to get a decent-sized cup of tea in this town? Hell, I’ll settle for some hot water because I have my own teabags.

I’ll admit to being a tea snob, primarily because I can’t drink coffee anymore and need my caffeine. Too many mornings drinking a half-pot of coffee followed by a Coke at work and an extra-strong cup of coffee with the wire editor after the first edition messed up my stomach at some point. Fortunately I met Marilynn just in time to discover the joys of Irish tea.

At least in Ireland and England, I know my tea needs will be met. In Berlin, we stayed in a hotel with free breakfast and two coffee machines with hot water. It was heaven. In Amsterdam, there was a kettle and decent-sized cups. In Antwerp there was a kettle and teensy cups in the room. We were too cheap to buy hotel breakfast, so off to McDonald’s we went. A smallish cup of tea was nearly two euro, and they wanted another two euro for hot water in the cup I just bought.

So I was hopeful that Paris would be better, but I was wrong. The hotel had no tea-making facilities, only a machine in the lobby that spit out four ounces of water in a flimsy, disposable cup for a euro. Patisseries, while fantastic for croissants, breads and other baked goodies, were crap for tea. The first one we visited served no hot drinks. The second served coffee, but no tea.

The second morning, we took our wee hotel cups to the second patisserie and asked for hot water. They wanted to microwave them. I didn’t know the French word best describing the molten, watery mess zapping those cups would leave in their microwave, so we gave up.

Even where tea was offered, it was outrageously expensive for what it is—hot water and a teabag. I can buy my beloved Barry’s tea direct from Ireland and have it shipped to the US for 10 cents a bag. I’m not gonna pay three euro for a cup of tea. Until I really want it, like when enjoying second pastry breakfast while waiting for Sainte-Chappell to open. And at Starbucks at the train station. That one was actually four euro, but it was tanker-sized and required two teabags to fill it.

I’m not sure what awaits in Prague, but that honkin’ big Starbucks cup made the two-train, one bus, 11-hour journey from Paris. And I’ve got plenty of teabags to go with it.