I've been in Belfast a month now. I've walked around, been in a couple of pubs, sourced pine-nuts and survived the Easter licensing laws. I'm no longer terrified all the time. But how did I get here? What have I seen? What were my first impressions of this small and forbidding city? What follows is an account of my first trip into the city solo, from a month ago...Was I ever that young?
Finally made it out into Belfast. It's been so long since I've written anything that the pen feels clumsy and foreign between my rusted fingers. I hope it wears off...
It takes about forty minutes to walk into the city centre from where I live (which may be called Ballyhackamore or Belmont or Knock or Dungalvan - they all seem to be fairly interchangeable). The city centre is full of enormous and impressive Victorian buildings and if I had trouble working out some of the blue-plaque venerables in London I haven't got a fucking clue over here: one was for an "Irish National and Librarian". There's one for C.S.Lewis (Irish apparently; his house is no longer there and they haven't even bothered to name the estate they built on it after him! Swizz!). I'm also about five minutes from Cyprus Avenue ( Made famous by Van Morrison's Astral Weeks' song "Madame George" which has no tune...as I found out when I attempted to hum it to my incredulous in-laws).
This wasn't my first foray out of the house. Oh no. Over the weekend Kelly and her sisters decamped to Gulladuff leaving me time to get the house un-packed and everything sorted out. One of the things I determined to do was replace my lost phone-charger ( I packed it in a clever, secure place that I wouldn't forget - it's lost to the ages now!). I'd been on a reconaissance mission in Deidre's car before-hand and realised that the way into town was down the lengthy Newtownards road (pron. "Newtown-ARDS - took me a week to master that). Unfortunately for me the Newtownards Road, like many of those modern roads that they have now, goes in two separate directions, and I found myself confidentally toddling along a motorway toward Stormont. This didn't deter me in the least - I could see a McDonalds on the horizon and a McDonalds means people and people are a large constituent ingredient of major metropolitan conurbations.
I walked for seven miles before reaching a place called Comber and then got a bus going in precisely the opposite and found a Carphone Warehouse where they stung me for twenty quid for a phone charger which was exactly twenty quid more than I paid for the phone. I knew there was something wrong about the route I was taking but I just couldn't quite put my finger on it. Then I realised...there hadn't been any mountains in the City-Centre the last time I had been there. Around the outside,sure; there's more purple fringes around Belfast than on Caesar's book-mark. But not in the City-Centre itself. That was the clue.
The good thing about living where I live is that no matter how rough I look or what I'm wearing when I go out, unless I meet my inlaws, I know I'm going to look better than anyone I meet. The people of East Belfast couldn't be called vain. Mostly they're in tracksuits; at best it's jeans and a collar-popped polo-shirt. Their face's suggest a early encounter with forceps; there are red ragged ears on every street-corner (literally on Saturday mornings). And there are the angry flushed faces (and these are faces that need flushing) hovering over cheap suits on every lamp-post. Not because they've been strung up, Mussolini style, (at least not yet) but because it's election time in Belfast. I've never known it not to be election time in Belfast; never known these worrying Tesco Branch manager portraits not to be hanging from street-lamps like so many gibbets.
Qualifying this I would say that these musings (never amusings) are based upon a week and a half's immersion in Norn culture, during which time I've been out of the house a grand total of three times and have spoken to two Fasties. One was a bus driver and that didn't go well. The other was a taxi driver and that went very well because I was half pissed and therefore half confident. That's a fifty percent success rate. I think that's probably got a slight edge on London.
Hello, present day John here again now. I would like to point out that I went on a lengthy walk this morning (at one point joining the Belfast Marathon) and I saw two people who I thought were better looking than me. They were younger than me. And it has been a long week.