Virtual Memories: Belfast

My Belfast trip was so quick — and the ensuing days were so harried between work and the secret/surprise trip to St. Louis — that I haven’t had time to put together my impressions of the trip. They’re already fading, so it’s time to get these memories onto the virtual page, dear readers.

* * *


The flight in

Belfast City Centre

The Giants Causeway

The flight home

* * *

I checked into the Europa (aforementioned most bombed hotel in the world) around 9:30 Sunday morning. I told the front desk, “I’ll need a wake-up call in 3 hours.”

“What time do you need to be called?”

“What’s 3 hours from now?”

I slept 4 hours. I’ve already posted pix & impressions from that afternoon’s meander around City Centre, but didn’t mention any of that evening’s doings.

After the walk, I hung out in my room for a bit, watched House & 30 Rock on their U.S. reruns channel, and then decided to go out for some dinner. In the lobby, I bumped into Jim M., the guru for the industry I cover; he called before the trip to see about getting together, but I was too tired to call him once I’d arrived. He was in the lobby with Jim McG., a high-up at the company that brought us out to Belfast. Jim McG. is a local, but he’s been working in the U.S. for years. Why don’t we all go to the hotel bar for a drink?

In lieu of dinner, I drank Guinness with two men named Jim, and bantered about life in the States, politics and Georgie Best. We also watched our bartender fly into a rage, punch a patron, and shove him out to the street. We’re not sure what the patron said, but the small, wiry man wasted no time in racing out from behind the bar and past local Jim and his tray with 2.5 pints of Guinness, to deliver a decent shot to the patron’s chin.

Our table was up a few steps from the floor of the bar, so I had a good vantage for the whole confrontation. Delusional with exhaustion and fortified by Vitamin G, I thought, “If anyone takes out a weapon, I can go over the railing with a chair and lay down the law!”

Fortunately, no weapons came out and, since the bar was otherwise empty, there was no potential for a larger brawl. Local Jim blanched as he returned to our table with the tray. American Jim said, “We better avoid whatever that guy ordered.”

* * *

Monday morning, coffee and a scone at Esquires, next door to the Europa. I’m having breakfast in Belfast, and the stereo is playing Breakfast in America, by Supertramp.

* * *

In a WH Smith bookstore display: Are You a Miserable Old Git? I immediately regret not buying this as a 70th birthday present for my dad. Or as a 40th birthday present for my brother.

* * *

So many of the teens in the city wear camouflage-style clothes. I wonder if it’s connected to growing up around paramilitaries, but it occurs to me that I have no idea what American kids are wearing nowadays.

* * *

Monday noon bus ride up to the Giants Causeway. It’s all couples and groups and solo me. Thinking ahead, I brought along my iPod and now set about making some songlines. The direct route up to Antrim is boring: farmland, light industry, cheap housing. The long way up around the coast is supposed to be much more picturesque, but I don’t have time for the full tour, since I need to be back in the evening to meet American Jim and Philip (a higher-up high-up at the company) for dinner and drinks.

So it’s dull highway landscape for me. Most of the songlines are buried now; they’ll emerge someday when a song pops up. (Just now, The Dead Heart by Midnight Oil has shuffled up on my iPod and puts me in a bar in Wellington, NZ.) The only one that sticks and needs to be revisited is Ring Road, from the new Underworld record. The song infuriated me when I first heard it; the deliberate fuzz of the microphone and the giant bass drum, the strange half-sung extensions of syllables and clipped vocal timing bothered the heck out of me, but it’s all snapping together on this busride. Like most of their music, the lyrics are fragmented, but this one’s got much more concrete imagery, describing a poor British neighborhood. You get the chorus:

people are squinting to block out the sun

complaining or soaking it up

praying for rain the next minute

for a scorched earth

what’s it worth

enough is never


let’s have a little moan

put the world to right

sit back and watch it all slide by

it’s a view from a train

pay somebody else to drive

see the suits

i see the suits sunning themselves on the steps

of the supermarket

and i think of you

and i’m alone like this

burning from the inside

I didn’t say it would make any sense to you, but it stayed with me throughout the trip. I don’t have any Van Morrison on my iPod.

* * *

The bus driver tells us about the Milk Cup, an international 18-and-under soccer tournament. The trophy presenter at last year’s tournament was “the world’s second greatest soccer player”: Pele.

“And we all know who was Best,” he reminds us.

* * *

I didn’t know what I was looking at when I first reached the Giants Causeway. The structure seemed too ordered to be natural and too nonsensical to be manmade. But the implicate order is out there, and it’s beyond my ken. The world keeps unfolding in wonders and glory.

Standing on the hexagonal columns of basalt, I wondered how much of the world I’d have seen if I didn’t have this job. If I had a job that paid just as well as this one, but didn’t involve travel, would I have seen a quarter of these miracles?

* * *

Walking on my own, I take off my headphones and listen to the wind and the waves, humming The Who’s Sea and Sand. It’s about 45 degrees and breezy. I take pictures everywhere. There are plenty of tourists on the trail, young and old. I follow it to the end; it’s fenced off with barbed wire, because the remainder of the trail is susceptible to mudslides and collapse. When I get to the barbed wire, I pull up close for a macro of a barb with the striated cliffs in the background.

Heading back, the trail forks, with one branch leading to a staircase up to the top of the cliffs; I decide to take it and its 162 steps. I count 155 of them before a family coming down the stairs causes me to jump up a couple of steps and lose count. At the top, I see a sheep farm and try to get a decent photo of one of those woolly bricks.

I look down from the edge of the cliffs to the Causeway and feel elation, wonder and the cool breeze, but no vertigo, no swoon, no moment-before-flight.

* * *

Returning to Belfast. On the left: St. Anne’s cathedral, with an enormously long cross at its spire. On the right: a gay bar called the Kremlin.

* * *

A full day of pharma-facility tours and business presentations. One high point is seeing the incredibly detailed work involved in making clinical trial supplies of a metered-dose inhaler drug. Sounds boring, but the engineering and the sheer effort required to make materials for a blinded trial of this device knocked me out.

Throughout the day, we have to gown up to enter clean environments. In addition to lab coats and hair nets (and beard snoods, if necessary), we also have to put Tyvek covers on our shoes. A typical gowning room is set up with a long metal bench that separates the “clean” area from the dirty. For footwear, the technique is: sit down on the bench, pull an elasticized cover over one of your shoes, then place that foot in the clean area without letting it back down in the dirty area. Straddling the bench, pull the cover onto the other foot and put that one down in the clean area.

But all day long, one of the other pharma-editors would just put both covers over his shoes while standing in the dirty area, then step over the bench. Each time, American Jim & I just look at each other with a “Is this his first time in a cleanroom?” look. I keep thinking that the guy will notice how we’re gowning up, realize his mistake, and follow suit. By our fifth gown-up, it still hasn’t happened. I resolve then never to read his magazine.

In the evening, I mention this to one of the client’s staffers. He laughs and says that he noticed it, too. “If we were going into any real sensitive locations, I’d have chopped his legs off,” he tells me.

* * *

Our schedule is thrown off because some of the journalists flying in from London are delayed by fog. (In February: imagine!)

The main dessert is Pavlova, a meringue dish that Phil had mentioned to me during dinner on Monday. He says that it’s a staple in Belfast, but Wikipedia says that it’s an antipodean dish. Either way, it’s delicious, and qualifies as the other high point of the facility tour.

This isn’t to slight the information I gathered during the tour and the presentations; it’s more a sign of how amazing their Pavlova was.

* * *

All work, no play, etc. We get back to the hotel with an hour or so to clean up before a big dinner and bigger drinks. The dinner is somewhat standard fare; that is, it’s good, but it’s a limited menu because our group is so large. The roasted goat cheese salad is fantastic, which is something I never thought I’d write.

None of the food is “Irish,” specifically, which means I will go this entire trip without a specifically Irish meal. Except, of course, Guinness, the Stout That Drinks Like a Meal.

After dinner, we visit the Crown Bar, which turns out to be the greatest bar I’ve ever visited (crap selection of gin notwithstanding). I knock down some Vitamin G, only to discover that the marketing manager who coordinated this whole trip is drinking wine, and Philip is drinking Harp. At that point, I begin to suspect that the whole Guinness fetish is just for show, to lure in tourists. Undaunted, I keep drinking. We cram into padded, walled-off booths and talk about kids, flying, music, Valentine’s day, and the bomb-induced crack in the house’s stained glass facade.

* * *

The Crown closes at 11pm on Tuesday, so we head around the back to Fibber McGee’s, where a band — guitar, banjo and fiddle — plays traditional Irish folk. I feel like I’ve walked into an Irishman’s dream of home. It’s loud, hot, packed with young and old drinkers. Remembering the bartender’s flip-out on Sunday night, I decide not to look at anyone for more than a moment.

But I never really feel unsafe. Throughout the trip, in fact, I’m struck by the openness of conversation. No one seems averse to talking about The Troubles, nor the lingering issues. It’s inescapable, of course. These are people who lived in a state of low-intensity urban warfare; you don’t just pretend it never happened. That said, it also doesn’t seem to define the people I met, with the possible exception of the bus driver up to the Causeway. Shortly before reaching the highway, he told us a tale of seeing several of his army buddies killed by an RPG.

At the Crown, Philip & I discuss theology, compare and contrast The Troubles to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and talk about the need for businesses to invest in the region. He can tell how much I’ve enjoyed the short stay and invites me to come back and use his second home (I think; this wasn’t really clear) up near the Giant’s Causeway. “Bring your wife!” And I’m tempted.

At Fibber McGee’s, it’s too loud for talk, at least with my too-deep voice. So I just soak up the atmosphere and the Guinness till 1:30 or so and head across the street to the Europa for a little sleep before the trip home.

* * *

Our hired car takes a London-based passenger over to George Best Belfast City Airport, before bringing me and another trade-writer to the “international” airport out in farmland. On the way, the driver points out the two huge cranes in the shipyard: Samson & Goliath.

He says, “That shipyard there is where the Titanic was built. And it was just fine when we gave it to the English!”

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