Anywhere but Belfast, please
“We call that one the Mona Lisa of Belfast,” our rather stiff tour guide said. “Wherever you go down this street, his gun will always follow you”.
We are taking a bus tour of “all four corners of Belfast”, and our Protestant tour guide has an incredibly dry sense of humor. A two-story building, on the Protestant side of the peace wall, has a man with a black ski-mask holding a gun pointed towards the street. Such violent and intimidating depictions are all over Belfast. Since the Good Friday peace treaty agreement, the violence has been on a decline. One does not see men with guns and army uniforms roaming the streets anymore. There were open gates between the peace walls, although as our tour guide mentions, “during times of higher tensions, these gates will be shut down and secured.” Murals along the wall set the tone that one could picture high security and soldiers manning the streets. Neighborhoods with such paintings were covered with litter and grime and unfriendly faces. With the current state of the city, Belfast’s history of conflict is definitely not unimaginable, and then again, perhaps the regions severe unemployment rates are more of a contributing factor than the history of the conflict itself.
According to the online Enterprise, Trade and Investment 2011 census, Belfast has the second lowest employment rate in the United Kingdom. An estimated 59,000 people are without jobs in Belfast. When people are struggling and competing with neighbors for jobs, it is reasonable to understand why the city appears the way it does. It must be incredibly difficult for people to fully be at peace with one another when livelihood is at stake. Upon my visit, taking these numbers into consideration, I surprisingly don’t see homeless people begging on the streets- a common sight in Dublin. Most people seemed to just be trying to get by which meant to mind your own business and avoid being friendly or welcoming at all costs.
The Movie House is my first encounter with Belfast’s standoffish people. I order salty popcorn and water, but the snack bar young man stares at me for a while, revealing a knowing look. I immediately try to disguise my accent but it is too late, he already associates the American stereotype of loving fatty foods with me. He demands that I buy more to surpass the credit card minimum. “Do you have any butter I could possibly put on my popcorn?” I ask because the popcorn looks already pretty terrible. He responds with a condescending laugh and a shake of his head, “No we don’t have those here.” They are incredibly unfriendly, at the little amount they are paid in a movie theater, I am sure that customer service is not a priority. The popcorn tasted horrible, and the blue-raspberry slushy I order (just to break the credit minimum) tastes even worse.
During our few free hours in the heart of the city, I wandered to Victoria Square for a bite to eat. The square is an opening to the Belfast Mall, quite the architectural oddity, having over one hundred different trendy indoor/outdoor stores. Facing the yellow and white arch is a very narrow brick building that extends itself in a V-shape as the block grows. We enter the very tip of the building into the Brittles Bar.
I order a Caesar salad with chicken and fresh Parmesan, the only decent meal I have the entire time in Belfast. The meal did not make its way to our table for over thirty minutes and, to be honest, it is hardly filling. Our waiter is around twelve years old, and the bartender is approximately fifteen. There is an older man running around the petite place, but he only seemed to count money in the register and mess with the blackboard menu prices. The young employee’s don’t seem to be helping the community’s unemployment rate but, their age probably helps keep the place going- assuming they are not paid a standard amount. The boys are slow and, like most young kids, easily distracted. I approached the young bartender for our check and returned to my seat. We wait for around forty-five minutes at which time I could see him sneaking shots of whiskey at the bar. I give up on the kids and go to the counter with my wallet and demand to pay, I fear to be late for Travel Writing. “Oh right, okay, we take pounds only,” the tipsy looking child scoffs at me, likely because of my accent. At that moment I want to say screw it and walkout. By this time I am already hungry again.
I can’t deny that I longed to be back in Dublin, where friendliness seems to be a cultural standard. Dublin is, of course, a massive tourist destination and so people are more willing to be polite and considerate to visitors. However, Dublin locals owe me nothing like a tourist, and still, they are more than willing to tell me their life story if I lend them an ear. I am so happy to be back in Dublin, Belfast was kind of a buzz kill. People were unfriendly and obviously disliked the fact that I am an American. Upon returning to Trinity, I immediately went to M.J O’Neil’s and ordered some real food from polite, smiling, Dublin men.
I do not want to generalize that all Belfast people are unfriendly and standoffish, that is never right to say about anywhere. My interactions with people, however, proved frustrating at the least. During the short time in Belfast, I dreamt of Dublin.