I wanted to touch down in Irish grey, in lashing rain and churchly dampness. Instead we landed in disappointing golden autumn glow and found Belfast prettily tucked inbetween mountains and the sea.
At the taxi rank a black Mercedes blasting Ariana Grande careened towards us. As Tom and I settled in the backseat the driver pressed a preset button with the delighted flourish of an infomercial presenter and changed the music to Irish fiddles. He flashed me a clever smile. I told him to change it back, or at least not to play fiddles on our account, and he nodded like he got me and played Bob Marley, singing along and driving too fast.
You should visit Belfast if only to see green eyes. A man working at a coffee shop had black hair, white skin and the pale green eyes of that National Geographic cover. He was so exotic looking that he might as well have been a peacock punching my order into an iPad. I dropped my coins on the counter when he looked at me.
I saw a waiter with woodsy, dark eyes, the color of muddy water in a mossy pond. I went to a manicurist with eyes like dusty jewels, antique emeralds set with onyx.
The same light scattering phenomena that makes eyes green makes the ocean blue. That coin-fumbling beauty of exotic seas is right there, right in their faces.
And yet — the women still wear as much makeup as pageant queen toddlers. I saw a mother on Hill Street, pushing a stroller wrapped in plastic against the rain, wearing sweatpants and ponytail, not in the least dressed up for the day, in so much orange foundation that the line between her makeup and her pale neck was as distinct as a map border between land and water.
Northern Ireland averages just fifty-eight days of sunshine a year. Where the skies and skin are the same shade of white year-round I suppose darkness has to come from bottles. So on they go, the oranges and pinks, the glitter and gloss.
The makeup didn’t matter much at 1am on Friday morning at the intersection of Castle and Donegall, the dead center of Belfast, where a black haired girl in a crème colored tube-top pantsuit hung her head and clutched a stoplight pole as though caught in a tornado. Her purse was on the ground and far out of reach, its contents spilled out onto a sewer grate. Her friend, in too much eyeliner and a miniskirt, crouched on the street, cleaning vomit out of the backseat of a taxi. She yelled in slurs. It was cold. No one one was wearing enough clothing except for a homeless man wrapped in a red sleeping bag, sitting on the ground nearby and eating McDonalds fries.
No one was worried about the purse.
You see all ages in downtown Belfast, elderly women in sallow old raincoats and schoolgirls in drab uniforms, greys and greens, ties and tights. There are babies and construction workers and barristers carrying their wigs. It’s the kind of small town where the city center isn’t limited to bankers and tourists.
There are not a lot of Americans.
The headline in the print edition of the Belfast Telegraph on Thursday was: “Estate Agent’s Plea: We need more of these – desperate shortage of £1m houses as demand rises.” There are twelve buyers looking for £1m houses in the area. Twelve is not very many, is it? The article had an inset photo of very important Northern Irish golfer and recent homebuyer Rory McIlroy.
Belfast has that kind of euphoric small town pride in three famous things: the Titanic, Rory McIlroy and Snow Patrol.
And it just so happened that at the Mourne Seafood Bar on Tuesday night there was a table of guys with tattoos and leather jackets, and the look about them like they know where to get the best drugs in town. Two of them were from Snow Patrol and the other was Ed Sheeran, with a floppy head of bright ginger hair, limbs saturated with multicolored tattoos like an abandoned bowl of Fruit Loops.
Eventually he opened the door to the restaurant to two hundred teenage screams and paparazzi camera flashes, all waiting for him. See photos here. (A sliver of my arm appears in #10.)
Poor Snow Patrol.
At the restaurant there was also a table of three weak-chinned Irish college boys sitting with an American girl. She had a fetchingly messy pile of black hair and wore tortoiseshell glasses. She said things like “change the system” and “American dream.” She had young political anger coming off of her like steam. She reminded me of myself at that age, full of rage and indignation and all the answers.
She spoke in measured anger and the boys leaned their cheeks against their hands and watched her without listening to a word she said. One of the boys, in daggers and principle, said America itself was to blame for 9/11. She said commandingly, “Just stop,” and he recoiled like he never had any venom at all.
They finished dinner without saying much else and she left, the boys followed her out the door like ducklings.
The next four to take their table were their exact opposites, in their sixties and sweet, not a care in the world, laughing at everything and introducing themselves to us like we were at a wedding.
Fiona wore pearls and had eyes the color of a Hollywood swimming pool. Nathan took a selfie with Ed Sheeran and told the teenagers that he was his father. Nora wore a floral cardigan buttoned up to the neck and named towns I should visit in Ireland. I could barely understand a word she said. I nodded along anyway. Paddy owned a bar where Nora said they served a lot of alcoholics. She whispered the word like profanity and sipped Sauvignon Blanc.
Tom and I have spent the last few months in East London, among edgy and cold people who carry satchels and have bad attitudes. We go to the same coffee shop every single morning and they still have to ask our names when they take our orders. This Irish friendliness resuscitated me like a warm cup of coffee in hands too long out in the cold.
I was buzzed on Snow Patrol and Guinness. We went with Fiona, Nathan, Nora and Paddy to Kelly’s Cellars, where fiddlers played and we drank and made even more new friends who hustled bowls of stew like it was heroin. I wanted to curl up under the table and fall asleep. I wanted never to leave. I would have moved to Belfast in that moment if someone put a lease in my hands.
On Wednesday I woke to a phone call from the concierge saying my rental car had been delivered. I had to sign for it.
“Uh, right now?” I asked, in that hungover disbelief in the basic workings of the world.
In the lobby I met an Enterprise sales associate so young and perky he looked like he just crawled out of the womb and drank fifteen cups of coffee.
“Were you not expecting us so early?” Eaarhlay? It was 9:05am. I said I thought I had already filled out the paperwork. The lie was better than admitting my degenerate hangover to someone so awake, someone on such a promising career path.
The day was grey and white and it rained a lot or a little, depending on the minute. We drove to the Giants Causeway, a patch of giant seaside hexagonal columns formed from cooling lava, like cracks in dried mud. The columns tapered down into the grey seawater like steps and interlocked so precisely it was hard to believe that they weren’t manmade. They could have been enormous, concrete lawn ornaments sold at roadside stands in Bali. But they were natural, made of volcanoes and physics and mathematics, and the warring giants of Celtic fairy tales.
We walked past a field trip of teenagers. They stuck their hands out to us for hign-fives. I pretended like I didn’t see them. It had the air of a prank. I didn’t want them to pull their hands away. I didn’t want to feel stupid. In reality they were just kids, waving at other cars from the back of a station wagon.
I took photos. I waited for the kids and other tourists to slip out of the frame to make the photos look more impressive for Instagram, to make the causeway appear more vast and solitary than it actually is. Other people are always a less photogenic part of the story. But I remember those unreciprocated high-fives better than any detail of the rocks themselves.
On the narrow coast road on the way back to Belfast I stopped at a small town pharmacy and waited in line behind a twelve year-old hooligan who asked for a passport photo. Where could he possibly be going? I bought forty-eight 400mg ibuprofen tablets for £2.59.
A girl at a coffee shop told me she had been to the US once. She said enthusiastically, “It gets so dark in California at night!” On one of those nights, she had taken a wrong turn onto a military base and was pulled over. “It was pretty funny to be pulled over by the US military given,” she had her hands full and pointed to all of Northern Ireland with her chin, “everything that happened here.”
One night after dinner at The Barking Dog we got into a taxi and I told the driver to take us to Ann Street. I said Ann over and over. He looked at me like I was speaking German. I showed him the address on my phone, and he said “Ahhhhhn,” correcting my pronunciation. He leaned back and said bitterly, “Oh, Americans,” in that kind of tone like he had a lot bigger problems with us than our accents.
“So what do yous think about Obama?” he asked. We said little and he talked a lot about everything America does wrong. His political banter had the feel of a too-hard handshake, malice squeezed into friendliness.
How could I talk about politics in Northern Ireland? What if I said something wrong? I was offended, too afraid of him offending to speak. I tipped him at the end of the ride.
What happened to the part of myself that I recognized in that angry American girl from the restaurant? When did I swap that fire and fight for a 50p tip?
We went to a bar called Love & Death. We drank expensive cocktails. We talked about nothing as tables of guys around us drank beers and a group of tubby girls in fake eyelashes ordered strawberry daiquiris. I wasn’t wearing any makeup. I was in a room full of foreigners and the foreigner was me.
I listed the places that I liked in Belfast below and on my Foursquare Belfast list.
Read: Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson, The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore, One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden, The Twelve by Stuart Neville
Eat: OX Belfast, Mourne Seafood Bar, Hadskis, James Street South
Drink: Love & Death, Muriel’s Café Bar, Kelly’s Cellars, The Spaniard, The Harp Bar, Lavery’s
Coffee: Established Coffee
Stay: Fitzwilliam Hotel
Tour: Bushmills Distillery, Giants Causeway, The Titanic Quarter