Happy Chinese New Year … Well, Kinda

Welcome to the Year of the Cock, Belfast style. At least on the streets around Queen’s University, you can see a fair number of Asian students, so maybe it’s not surprising that the city has a Chinese New Year celebration.

But what you may find surprising is that less than half the acts we saw during a public event at the Ulster Hall were Asian. The reggae band didn’t qualify. Neither did the Polish dancers. Or the belly dancers, for that matter. But what about the Scottish dancers, the Irish dancers or the break dancers? No. No. And, ah, no.

So Chinese New Year in Belfast was more of a melting pot event. Some of the acts were surprisingly good. Others were decidedly less so. But it was all good fun nonetheless. Marilynn just called it, “Sweetly multicultural.”

Reggae? REGGAE? No feckin’ way!

My favorite Internet radio station is Radio Paradise, but every time I hear a song from anyone named Marley, I hit the Play Something Different button as quickly as possible. I don’t necessarily hate reggae (love the Peter Tosh take on “Johnny B Good” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Downpressor Man”), but all Marley music sounds the same to me. Maybe I just like reggae remakes.

But the reggae act was by far my favorite. Not because I like reggae, but because of the lead singer, who played the bongos with such gusto and got the crowd on its feet. The break dancers were, good too. All Irish (I assume), and all together every step, pop, drop and cartwheel of the way. Maybe I liked it because it was the most surprising part of a very surprising event.

Among the expected (i.e. Asian) part of the show, of course I liked the Chinese dragons best. Since they were on the playbill, we would have been greatly disappointed not to have seen them. The show included three, actually, that performed both on stage and up and down the aisles of Ulster Hall.

‘Stairway to …’ Belfast?

Speaking of Ulster Hall, we stumbled upon a timeline of the venue while we were leaving. It opened in 1862 after construction that cost under 14,000 pounds. While not as grand as the Grand Opera House, it still is a great place to see a show.

And over the years, it has played host to a wide range of events, including the first Northern Ireland appearance of a British band called Led Zeppelin. On that night, March 5, 1971, the band performed live for the first time “Stairway to Heaven.”

You can hear that version on You Tube, but it’s not very good quality. Instead, I’d recommend this reminiscence from a writer for the Belfast Telegraph who attended the concert as a stubbly faced 18-year-old.

“That night in the Ulster Hall was the first public performance of Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and we didn’t like it. Too ‘ballady’ for Led Zeppelin was our thoughts.”

Maybe someone will be talking about the 2017 Chinese New Year celebration 45 years later. Not likely, but few in Ulster Hall that night in 1971 thought that about “Stairway to Heaven,” either.

Nobody knows the Troubles they’ve seen

No trip to Belfast would be complete without learning more about the deep, rich and often painful history of Northern Ireland. It’s a complicated interplay among the North, the Republic of Ireland and England that stretches back centuries.

The story you’ll get depends on who you ask, more specifically, the religion of who you ask. While there are no absolutes in religion or politics (just ask pollsters before the US presidential election), generally Protestants support the union with England and Catholics want Ireland to be one country. There, 350 years of Irish history wrapped up in a bow, just for you.

But you’ll get widely divergent takes on the same historical events by visiting the Museum of Orange Heritage and the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum, which we did over the past several days.

The origin of ‘hillbilly’

The Museum of Orange Heritage is all about how King William of Orange beat back the Catholics in 1690, how they again were victorious following battles during the early Irish republican rebellion of 1798, how the Orange Lodges got started around the same time, their participation in the first World War and how they came under attack during the Troubles. There’s more to it than that, obviously, but that definitely hits the highlights.

Opened in 2015, the museum was built, in part, through the support of the European Union. We paid 10 pounds for a family ticket, and the museum has regular museum-like hours, Tuesday-Saturday. We were surprised to discover that football great George Best (for whom Belfast City Airport is named) was a member of a junior Orange society when he was a lad.

You can see parts of King William’s saddlecloth, a pair of gloves and a letter he wrote. If you look closely, you can see an American connection—Protestant immigrants to the US were called “King Billy’s Men from the mountains or hills” because, like at home, they celebrated significant Protestant war victories with music. This was later shortened to “hillbillies.”

Prison life detailed

On the other hand, the Irish Republican History Museum is open four hours a day, Tuesday-Saturday, takes no government money and is run by an all-volunteer organization. Admission was free, but we kicked 10 pounds into the donation box to even things out between the Unionists and the Republicans. The museum was founded by (who else?) Eileen Hickey, a Provisional IRA leader who spent more than four years in Armagh Prison between 1973-1977, during a time in which hundreds of people (mostly Republicans) were jailed—often without charge.

After the end of the Troubles, she started collecting artifacts and stories from those who had been imprisoned, along with other Republican history. The museum opened in 2007, one year to the day after her death from lung cancer, in a former social hall (read: drinking establishment).

While there were few visitors at either museum when we visited, the Orange museum seemed rather sterile, artifacts under plexiglass with museum-quality interpretation beside them. Other than the nice woman who took out money, the only other museum person we saw was a maintenance man swabbing down a hallway.

The Republican museum was chock-full of objects, including a fair amount of weaponry and a ton of artifacts made by prisoners. Harps galore, banners, furniture, mirrors, Celtic crosses. These people obviously had a lot of time on their hands.

You can see artifacts from Long Kesh and Armagh prisons, including a recreation of an Armagh cell and Eileen Hickey’s prison card. Hickey’s sister was there on the day we visited, showing obvious enthusiasm for the museum her sister founded as a way to tell the Republican story.

But when Marilynn asked about the current political climate, days after the Republican party Sinn Fein triggered early elections, she was more circumspect. The Troubles impacted the lives and outlooks of an entire generation, but today’s teens are growing up in a time when they know nothing but peace.

And perhaps that’s the best place to leave it, both this column and the Troubles, with wishes for continued peace.

Photos: The one to the left is an example of an Orange arch located outside the Museum of Orange Heritage. The one to the right is a mural of Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional IRA who died during a hunger strike at the HM Prison Maze in 1981. This mural is just off Falls Road about two blocks from the Republican museum.

To let or not to let …

OK, this is the ubiquitous words-have-different-meanings-in-different-countries post that every tourist with a blog probably has written. Run if you must … I won’t blame you, but I promise to only look at the interesting words.

If you’re still here, look at the picture. Did you think “toilet”? I’ve been in Europe a half-dozen times in the past decade or so, and this one throws me every time. It looks like the “i” went missing. And it’s doubly confusing, because the “bathroom” or “restroom” is called the “toilet” over here.

I thought it was just me, but my Rhodes Scholar wife says it throws here, too, which means either (a. My mind isn’t as far in the gutter as I feared; or (b. I’ve dragged my wife down to my level. That one’s likely a tossup.

We actually read by quickly deciphering the shape of words rather than the individual letters. Here’s a Scientific American article that explains what I’m talking about, and why it’s perfectly natural to interpret “to let” as “toilet.” Aside from the fact it’s really, really funny, that is.

The way our brains interpret words is also the reason it’s harder to read CAPITAL LETTER WORDS and, perhaps, the reason why capital letters piss so many of us off.

For me, I’ll take a for rent sign over a to let sign every single day.

What’s in a name?

From my experience, I will say that Brits and the Irish do better than we Americans at describing things. It makes sense … they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years longer.

I’m not going to write about the obvious word differences (chips for fries, crisps for potato chips), but I will never understand why cookies and crackers are both called biscuits. I was looking for crackers in the local Tesco the other day, and Declan had to direct me. “Crackers are biscuits for cheese,” Marilynn says. In other words, no support from the missus on this issue.

But, as I’ve said, they’ve got a lot of the terminology spot on. Where do you park in front of Wal-Mart (OK, here, Marks & Spencer)? Why, the car park, of course. And that big road you drive on to get from city to city? The motorway.

Lift does describe what an elevator does better than, say, elevator.

I will have to quibble over clothing terms, however. For his uniform, Declan needed specific type/color of trousers, blazer and jumper, according to the handbook. We’d say pants, jacket and sweater. Although please don’t say “pants” here when you mean long trousers. Pants here mean underwear.

A few years ago while visiting friends near Oxford, I mentioned that I had forgotten my comfy pants at home and wanted to buy some when we went shopping. I was referring to the nighttime/morning pants I sometimes wear with the elastic waistband and drawstrings. They thought I meant something very different.

It was so embarrassing, I sought refuge in the bathroom. Or was it the to let?

Interesting times … on both sides of the pond

Just two weeks ago, we were looking forward to getting away from the tit-for-tat government spats that were occurring during the presidential transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Inauguration? What inauguration?

And then Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned a week ago, which has triggered a new Northern Ireland election for March 2. Oh boy, just in time for my birthday.

It’s hard enough to describe the political situation in Northern Ireland during tranquil times. But the past two months on the island have seen a sharpening of the divide between the Democrat Unionist Party (DUP) and nationalist party Sinn Fein. The two parties had been running a coalition government in Northern Island under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which ended decades of direct rule from London and is generally considered to mark the end of the Troubles. The resignation of one of the main ministers can trigger a snap election after one week in the absence of a replacement being named, which is what happened earlier today.

Try to keep up

Ostensibly at the heart of the debate is the renewable heat incentive (RHI), a scheme that Arlene Foster set up as energy minister before being named first minister last year before the May 2016 election. The terms of the scheme seem to have been quite generous, especially in light of drastically falling fuel prices. That’s not to say that all who received RHI funds—mainly farmers who also invested heavily in new technology—were doing anything wrong. But the terms were extremely favorable to those who participated in RHI, with a total potential outlay to taxpayers of nearly £500 million.

When details came to light, Sinn Fein asked Foster to step aside while an investigation took place. She refused, setting the stage for last week’s showdown. Fueling the flames, so the speak, during the so-called “ash for cash” scandal was the DUP communities minister’s decision to cut £50,000 out of a program to help Irish language students visit the Gaeltacht region of Donegal, where Irish still is spoken. This happened on the Friday before Christmas. Nollaig Shona, indeed!

The week between McGuinness’s resignation and the calling of early elections saw a flurry of he-said, she-said between the parties. The money for Irish language instruction, a key point for Sinn Feiners, was returned. Foster refused to step aside, and Sinn Fein declined to name a new first deputy unless she did.

But wait, there’s more!

A snap election suspends the power-sharing agreement for the first time in more than a decade, and Stormont, where the Northern Ireland Assembly meets, will cease operating in the next couple of weeks. Will it mean the reimposition of direct rule or could it tip political power in another direction?

A change in the constitution aimed at gradually reducing the size of the legislative body also means that there will be 18 fewer representatives, which could hurt fringe parties but could also rebalance power among the main political parties. In a world where virtually no one predicted Brexit or in the UK or Trump’s election in the US, we’ve all learned that anything is possible.

Finally, the new election puts in doubt Northern Ireland’s solution to the bedroom tax, which taxes people for having unused bedrooms in an effort to get them to downsize. Large carveouts were made for pensioners, but there just aren’t enough smaller homes to go around—despite the threat of taxation. The collapse of power-sharing also leaves this issue up in the air.

In announcing the mandated election, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire expressed hope that the parties could “… find a way forward to secure the continuation of devolved government.”

Can you image power-sharing between Republicans and Democrats? When considering how this issue will affect Northern Ireland over the next six weeks, remember how far both sides have come over the past 15 years.

Panto is a raucous good time

A pantomime—or panto, as it’s commonly known in the UK—must be experienced rather than described. It’s equal parts beauty and bawdry, seasoned with large dollops of music, topical humor, sight gags and fart jokes. It’s the closest thing to a vaudeville performance you’ll find these days. The narrator is usually a man in drag, contrasting greatly with the fair stars of the production.

Going to a panto is a holiday tradition in the UK, much like we’d go to see a production of “A Christmas Carol.” On our trips to Europe during American Thanksgiving, we had noticed adverts for pantos on buses and in train stations in the cities we were visiting. One year, the star was John Barrowman, who many sci-fi and fantasy fans know from his portrayal of Capt. Jack Harkness in “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood.” Although some of the actors can be from the B list, the narrator usually is the real star.

On our first bus trip to the city centre, I saw an advertisement for “Cinderella” at the Grand Opera House, a venue that truly lives up to its name. The production extended well past Christmas, so I figured there wouldn’t be a more appropriate time to experience this UK tradition.

Trying to get tickets, however, was a challenge—even three weeks after Christmas. This was closing week, and many of the performances were sold out. The performance we attended, a Friday afternoon matinee, was full except for the neck-turning, slightly obscured tickets we managed to purchase.

For the Grand Opera House production of “Cinderella,” take a well-known story, mix in a handsome prince and a fresh-faced lead actress. Throw in a cross-dressing fairy godmother with half-moon disco balls on her dress where her breasts would be and Princess Leia bun hair with another disco ball on top. Top that with generous amounts of slapstick, familiar tunes with new words and loads of audience participation (the louder the better), and you get some idea of a panto.

The fairy godmother, May McFettridge, embodies the spirit of the panto at the Grand Opera House. She’s been starring in pantos here for more than a quarter century, honored in 2014 with a bust permanently installed in the theatre opposite that of opera house architect Frank Matcham.

The jokes flew fast and thick, poking fun at everything from the current political climate to Donald Trump. Talking about her origins early on, the fairy godmother says she “wakes up every morning where everyone hugs and kisses—Stormont,” a reference to the current political climate where the power-sharing agreement is in jeopardy.

Several jokes were aimed at Gareth Gates, who played Prince Charming. He was a runner up to Will Young in the UK’s “Pop Idol,” then lost out to him again for best-selling song of the year.

In all the raucous action, you could have missed the Grand Opera House Dancers and future stars who gyrated, pranced and tried to keep pace. But you couldn’t have missed the 10 school groups who packed the 1,100-seat venue. Not only did the fairy godmother call out each group, he also brought four pre-teens up on stage for some alliterative fun, repeating variations of “One smart fellow, he felt smart.” Say this out loud to yourself a couple of times, and you’ll get where the gag is going.

The first girl, a knock-kneed 8-year-old with long straight hair that kept getting into her eyes, failed miserably, substituting “fart” for “smart” each time, much to the crowd’s delight. Another boy started to say the “f” word, before stopping himself and repeating the phrase correctly.

If you’re looking for high theater, a panto will never be your thing. But if you want to experience a beloved holiday tradition like the natives do, a panto definitely is worth a look.

Getting my workout on at the PEC

Over the past year, I worked myself into fairly good shape, dropping more than a few pounds and turning my spare tire into a run-flat spare. Marilynn says I look mighty fine, which makes the effort worth every drop of sweat, every lap in the pool and every crunch performed under the watchful eyes of the very fit and very perky Body Pump instructor.

The past few months, however, have been fairly rough on my exercise routine, a combination of my bad back flaring up and the sheer amount of gargantuan, huge, medium, small and tiny tasks that had to be completed before making this trip.

But I was determined to maintain a workout regime, so Marilynn had already checked out the Queen’s Physical Education Center, known as Queen’s Sport. I also love that it’s full name can be shortened to PEC. Get it? Like the Ted, the former home of the Atlanta Braves.

“I’m going to the PEC to get my workout on!”

Since I paid nearly $200 US for the privilege of working out at the PEC, those workouts began immediately. Because Queen’s gives exams at the PEC, the swimming pool has really odd hours this week. It’s open 6:30-9 a.m., then again from 12:30-2. I’m not a morning person, so the first session was out.

So, on Tuesday,  I gathered all of the necessary stuff for a slightly-past-midday trip to the pool and set off. Most of what happened hereafter was my fault, the result of “just one of those days.”

When I got to the gym, I couldn’t remember where the pool was. The PEC is a multi-level, multi-building facility that I’d toured at a breakneck pace with someone who obviously knew where he was going. So I asked a guy in the locker room, who pointed me in the right direction (and toward the locker room closer to the pool).

When I got there, I realized I hadn’t brought my pool shoes. Now I could have gone swimming and taken a shower without shoes, but I’m not a fan of foot fungus. No shoes = no swimming. “That’s OK, I can lift weights and do an elliptical machine,” I think to myself. So I returned to the first locker room, where I avoided the gaze of the guy who’d just given me directions.

Halfway down the long corridor to the elliptical machines, I realized I didn’t have my Fitbit. No sense working out if you don’t get credit for the steps, so I trek back to the locker room. I get the locker open OK but can’t figure out how to close it and retrieve the key.

The locker system works like getting a shopping cart at Aldi: insert quarter, retrieve cart, get quarter back when you return cart. Except you’re exchanging a one pound coin for the key. After much wrangling, I manage to find the returned coin, reinsert it and get the key. Half way back down the same corridor, I realize I don’t have my headphones. At least this time I knew how the locker worked.

And don’t even ask me about the shower. Suffice it to say that I would be seeing a little more humanity in the open shower facility than suits my tastes (not to mention my modesty). So I’ll be showering at home.

The actual working out part is pretty much the same as at home. No swinging sheep instead of kettle balls, for example. But the change of venue is throwing my whole game off, as evidenced by my first gym foray.

Nothing uniform about this school

Even before we left Decatur, we knew one of the most interesting experiences for Declan would be his new school. Regardless of where he went, we knew there would be a uniform involved that had nothing to do with the football jerseys he wears every day. Marilynn really wanted to get him into Lagan College, Northern Ireland’s first integrated school.

I could digress into a long history of Ireland and religion, but that’s the topic for another post. It’s enough to say that integrated in Ireland means both Catholic and Protestant, not the (literal) black and white issues we Southerners have been dealing with since Reconstruction.

The school’s motto is “Ut Sint Unum,” Latin for “that all may be one.” It was founded in 1981 as a beacon of hope against the stark backdrop of the Troubles. The school is one of the most oversubscribed in the North, despite its location a fair way from the city centre.

So we were very fortunate that a place opened up for Declan at Lagan, which has 1,100 students over seven grades. The grade system is very different from ours, and I still can’t get my  head around it. But instead of seventh grade, Declan is now in Year 9.

He’s having a blast so far, from wearing the sporty blazer and tie to figuring out (and occasionally screwing up) the bus schedule. OK, that last one was mostly the fault of the local transportation service, although we are to blame for a few of the subsequent ones.

For schools that draw students from a relatively small area, you may see one of those 15-passenger vans with a school name on it traveling the Malone Road. But many students, like Declan, ride on regular buses that have School Bus #whatever in the destination header, much like a MARTA bus will say “Clairmont Road.” They pick up at regular bus stops, not specific spots for schoolchildren. Declan rides School Bus 1, a double-decker that goes specifically to Lagan—but just once a day. Miss it, and it’s a 10 pound taxi ride for you.

During the school tour on Thursday, the welfare officer spent 45-plus minutes with us, including having a lengthy conversation with someone from the transit authority to figure out the closest stop to us, which turned out to be a fair walk and smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood.

Declan and I arrived early on Friday to the designated destination, only to be told by the crossing guard for two other schools that he’d never seen an Ulster bus down the street in his four years as a guard. We waited well past the appointed time before I called the cab company, put Declan in the back and gave him a tenner for the driver. He made it home OK that day, and we determined to find a better (and cheaper) bus stop on Monday.

This specific stop was much closer to the flat, but the woman from the transportation authority had no idea whether the bus would actually stop. I could see three crazy Americans standing in the bus lane on the Malone Road trying to stop a double-decker bus through frantic waving and positive attitudes. Yeah, right.

But another Year 9 and her mom were already at the stop when we arrived. They assured us (actually the mom assured us because the girl was an uncommunicative as Declan, who thought we were embarrassing him) that the bus does stop here, which did happen.

Yesterday afternoon, Marilynn and I were rushing home from a near-daily grocery shopping trip to Tesco when I got a text from Declan saying he’d gotten on the wrong bus and was headed to city centre. There are two buses that leave from the same stand at Lagan, and he’s supposed to get on the second one. Oops. You can’t travel a block by bus without a connection to city centre, so Declan knew exactly what to do to get back home.

The extra pound for the trip from city centre (did I mention that students pay for the bus?) was much better than the 8 pound 50 I spent on Friday, so we’re making progress.

And Declan did text this morning that the bus arrived on time.