The first two days of our trip have consisted of various activities that I would call “teambuilding” activities, and getting to know the city of Belfast. Although we have spent many hours together on Thursday evenings over the fall and winter, now we are actually living together, in a different country. We still have much to learn about each other, about Belfast, and about Northern Ireland.
Some slept, some didn’t, the first night. We met for breakfast in the dining room at Farset International, one of the more interesting places of accommodation I’ve experienced. It’s a cross between a hostel and a hotel. Very reasonable rates, clean rooms, common spaces to gather, and an eclectic array of groups and individuals that come through the place on a daily basis, both for accommodation and meeting space. The Saint Mary’s group is still here, having just finished their week in the Belfast schools with Bernardo’s. Although many of the students have traveled to Dublin or London for the weekend, Bridget, the SMU trip leader, Judy, a Saint Mary’s professor travelling with the SMU group, and Rick, an educator from Florida who does work with Peaceful Schools International, are still here and are part of many of the morning and evening conversations.
Ruth, the director of Farset, is warm, welcoming, loud, and pretend grumpy all in one. “If she yells at you, that means she likes you” says Bridget. She makes it very clear, for the umpteenth time, that folks are not to stuff their pockets with breakfast foods (cheese, bread, fruit) for lunch. “You have to eat everything here. That’s the rule. No packed lunches.” But she has brought in fresh fruit for the Canadians, and made us croissants for breakfast. And she is always available for advice on where to eat and what to do.
We had planned to visit an East Belfast community group today, but because there is a parade of remembrance planned for soldiers killed during The Troubles today, I consult with the community representative and we decide to postpone the visit until next Thursday. It might be too difficult getting to East Belfast as the parade and our visit were around the same time. We decide to go to City Centre for some orientation and shopping, and then take the city Hop On Hop Off bus tour.
After a quick stop at Carroll’s, the Cadillac of both tacky and quality Irish souvenirs shops, and the Belfast Welcome Centre, we agreed to split up for an hour and a half. Most of the group wanted to get to Primark, a discount clothing store. It’s something I have never really understood – this obsession with getting to Primark. I do know that the young adults I knew at Corrymeela were always keen to get to Primark on their trips to the city (and for those of you in the know – is it pronounced Pree-mark, or Pry-mark?) ... an hour and a half later, 6 happy campers with very big bags full of bargain finds. When I asked some later in the afternoon what the attraction was, it was explained that it’s a unique combination of being a huge department store with a wide size range and very low prices. When we had the fashion show afterwards back at Farset, they were so happy at their finds I didn’t have the heart to insert any real social analysis about where the clothes were made ... although I couldn’t help making a light comment about it.
And, I can’t claim to be above all the shopping stuff – I made my way to my favourite shop The Wicker Man, and despite my pledge not to buy any more Celtic jewellery (I bought plenty the last two times I was here) I did seem to have a moment of weakness ... enough said. The only one who really seemed to resist well was Caitlyn, who, along with me, is not in the picture below. Alayna went for a beautiful Irish knit sweater at Carroll’s, which was actually on sale. She too was very happy at her purchase.
Caitlyn and Alayna had their own adventure while the rest were at Primark. I won’t describe it as well as they can, but they found an inflatable “room” on a side street (“kind of like a bouncy castle ...”) which was a participatory arts and culture workshop. They were welcomed in, spent time in conversation with others, and doing some hands on art activities.
We spent the next couple of hours on the city tour bus. We had a wonderful guide who made the scripted speech his own, inserting tidbits and jokes. We all thought he sounded quite seasoned and were surprised when he came to the upper level of the bus at one point and we realized he was in his early twenties. When we went to the Titanic Quarter, he observed that most folks from Belfast point out that the Titanic was “fine when she left here ... if you want to know what happened ask the English Captain, or the Scottish navigator, or even the Canadian iceberg.” Alana also got quite a kick out of his commentary about the hockey arena – the fact that after they built it they had to import the team players from Canada, the U.S. and Russia.
The tour took us all over the city and it’s outskirts, Stormont, the Parliament buildings, the Peace Walls, and the university area just to name a few. It was a great activity to get the political, cultural, and geographical lay of the land. Today, the group is doing a hike to Belfast Castle while I went to the market with Judy, and am now writing this in my favourite cafe. We will meet at Benedict’s for a late lunch, and head back to Farset for an extended check in and planning session for the week ahead, and for our three days at Corrymeela.