Friday, February 02, 2007

A trip to Belfast

For years now, I've been playing celtic music: not just Irish, but Scottish, French, Spanish - the celts were a well travelled race (and still are indeed).

So, here I am, at the grand age of 46, I've played Celtic music for years, even play the bodhran, and I'd never been to Ireland. Until Wednesday 31st January 2007. Coincidentally, a full moon. Which, though it has no relevance to the story, has relevance to me.

Why did I go to Belfast, and just for a day? Business of course. Why else get up at the crack of dawn (poor girl, she really should use more moisturiser) and drive down to Stansted to fly over to Belfast so you can get on a plane home again in the evening and arrive back home more tired than a tired thing? I reached the airport at 6.30 am. But as I love flying, the trip was no bother - I just love being in a plane.

Well, I went to a 'Network and Getwork' event with Belfast City Council. Oooh, what a fabulous building the Belfast City Hall is! More marble than you can imagine - a superb building with a beautiful dome and some really quite OTT paintings and (oh, I don't know, architecture was never my strong point - but lots of pretty bits, anyway).

As we drove into Belfast Andrew pointed out 'the sites'. "That estate, Protestant, and over there - UDF, and over there - IRA..." the journey was punctuated by sectarian territories. It is extraordinary - a cultural heritage you cannot imagine until you have been there with a native. And I guess the perspective will vary according to the person you are with. A shock to me in my naievety, I have to admit.

But first, my Irish colleague Andrew and I had a meeting to attend, with a potential associate for future business. Andrew picked me up from the airport (the flight was late, but Andrew was later) and we trolled off to the meeting at the Europa (the most bombed hotel in Belfast he told me). As we walked from our parking space to the hotel, he pointed out the men in red coats. "Privatised parking fines - they've made more than a million in fines in the first two months.."
As we wandered down the streets, a mix of modern and ancient buildings, I noticed to my left a plethora of tiling adorning the side of a building: "Is this the Crown?" I asked. "Yeah," he said, and as we turned the corner, "The Crown" pub it was. The oldest pub in Belfast. And I know this because I am a sad git and I read my BBC history magazine. But sure, he was impressed that I knew what the building was before seeing the frontage.

So, off to meet this chap in the Europa. BORING! He was extraordinarily boring, full of himself and I saw Andrew 'switch off' after about ten minutes (no good at false body language, bless him). I tried, but the bloke was obviously out to get more from us than we could get from him. Such is business. I will email him 'no thank you' politely at some point.

We were, of course, late for that meeting. And then, of course, because Andrew didn't want to stay on a parking meter, we had to look for another parking place. We went round, and round, and round... I saw quite a bit of Belfast. The two huge cranes - still standing from the days when they built the Titanic; bright new glass monstrosities (not a fan of modern architecture on the whole), the St Georges Market (opposite a particular kind of housing estate that he would not walk through of course).

We eventually parked in the same car park that we'd passed about ten minutes previously (I'd seen some cars leaving so knew there'd be a space!) and sauntered over to the City Hall for our network event. "Mr .... is talking. He's Sinn Fein, but business is business." Said Andrew. Business does seem to be breaking down the barriers it seems, but who am I to comment.

The entrance to the amazing Belfast City Hall opened into a fabulous atrium with high domed ceiling. Marble everywhere! Thick, deep, almost warm, the marble was the fabric and soul of this amazing building. (Yeah, I like marble.) We went up the stairs into the main hall where the event was taking place and started off with a finger buffet. Thankfully they didn't serve fingers, but bits of chicken and sausages and a few curly sandwiches.

Then we all sat down for the introductory speeches, from InvestIreland, Belfast City Council, The Dublin and Belfast Chambers of Commerce. I heard the nuance (well, not so much nuance as stridence) in each accent. It was a mixed audience and a mixed event. It was business. The oddest accent was probably mine - clear London!

Then we entered into a 'speed networking' furore that probably got Andrew one or two dates (he's a good looking lad I suppose) and got me one or two strange looks (unsurprising too). We had two meetings scheduled with the City Council which were both good. One with an HR person, one with a lady from Communications. Andrew pointed out to me which one was Catholic, and which Protestant. I could have worked it out, in retrospect, but it didn't occur to me that I needed to. And I don't need to - but I do need to understand more if I'm going to do business over there.

After our meetings Andrew and I sauntered round the corner to 'Bar Red' where we had a sit down, a chat, and a drink. But, to be honest, my excitement was nothing to do with being in Ireland for the first time, or the business networking - I was going to meet my best friend. For the first time.

Now that might sound strange - meeting your best friend for the first time, but that's the beauty of the internet. And the scary thing about it too I guess. I had 'met' Cathy on line on our writers forum many months before and we'd communicated about writing, then 'chatted' on line about other stuff, and slowly developed a very firm friendship. We now talked about everything and anything - and with someone you can't see or talk to, its often easier to share the 'difficult things' in your life, the stuff you usually keep bundled up behind shutters. After all, you are never going to meet them, they are never going to meet the people you talk about, they can't hurt you - at a distance.

But if you find someone who is such a good friend that you don't mind what they know, and you trust them completley, then actually meeting them won't cause you anxiety. Well, it shouldn't. And - it didn't really. Do you know what worried me most about meeting Cathy? That I would be a disappointment to her. That I would not be the selectively 'erudite' or 'eloquent' person I aspire to be, in words on paper and on line, and signally fail to be in person! There's a Carribean saying 'Mouth open, story jump out' - with me its 'Mouth open, foot jump in' more often than not.

So Andrew and I were in this bar, and I knew Cathy would arrive shortly. Andrew hung around, he's a gentleman and would not abandon me in a bar in a strange city on my own. I looked out the window and saw Cathy arrive. Looking just like her photo, she came into the bar and straight up to me (damn, I must look just like my photo too - and I hate my photos). I stood, and we hugged like old friends. We are old friends. I introduced her to Andrew, passed her a beer (I pre-ordered, knowing what she drinks), and we had a few minutes formal chatter. Andrew (still the gentleman) took his leave and left us to it. We were on our own.

I sent a quick text, as promised, to a third party. No reply. Cathy and I started to talk, and we found that we could converse as easily in person as we did on line and, in more recent times, on the phone. I think the phone calls helped, we knew what each sounded like and had attained some 'measure' of each others' pace of conversation. We had been worried that we'd need bits of paper to pass over, as if exchanging emails - but our concerns dissipated quickly.

I picked up my mobile phone - the text had not been responded to. I dialled - the US! - on my work mobile (I'd have to fess up to that one, that's for sure!). The person answered and I passed the phone to Cathy. On the phone was Nadine, in Arizona - a further friend via our writers circle with whom we were both in close email communication. We had always said she'd be with us 'in spirit' when we met. Cathy was astounded and pleased to hear Nadine on the phone. But the bar was noisy, so it was a short lived conversation.

We moved to a slightly quiter part of the bar, and talked. And talked. And talked. What did we talk about? I don't know! Cathy showed me pictures of her home town, I showed her pictures on my mobile of friends she knew by name and reputation. We examined each other's jewellry, telling the story behind each ring, bangle and earring. I tried to show Cathy the hairs on the palm of my hand (which is why there was some trepidation about a full moon - for I had the reputation of being a werewolf which is erroneously based on about three or four extremely fine hairs on a skin graft on my fingers).

We were both nervous, both excited, and both extremely happy. I felt as if I'd known Cathy for years - as if I was meeting up with an old friend I hadn't seen for a long time. I felt as if we were 'catching up' on history and events that we had shared in more than just emails and phone calls. It was a very strange experience. But it was one that kept me grinning for a long time. I wanted to laugh, to cry, to say how happy and pleased I was to meet her and how nice a person she really was. That she was as genuine and natural in person as she was on line. Or should that be the other way round? It was hard to say, and I wasn't eloquent, or erudite . I think I talked complete and utter rubbish. The pub was smokey, and Cathy smoked too. But for once, I didn't care.

I had just three hours before I had to pick up a taxi back to the airport. Cathy was staying over in Belfast with her family, so the taxi dropped her off first. The time ran out too quickly - there was still so much to natter about, and I didn't get to meet her (rather dishy from his pictures) husband or her son. But it was a start, and a good one. If you are going to meet your best friend for the first time, this is the perfect way to do it.

Once I'd left Cathy at her hotel, my taxi driver said he'd take me 'over the mountains, it's quicker from here'. Fairycakes it was quicker! Over the mountains? I think we must have doubled the usual journey to the airport. But I didn't really mind. I had a good chat with the driver, I went past the Falls Road, the Shankil Road (hey - they look like perfectly normal streets!) and then up the hills into the permanent fog that adorns the hills above Belfast. The taxi fare was more than £26 - but he rounded it down to £25. A minor twinge of guilt on his part, perhaps, for fleecing the poor English Eeejit.

I got to the airport and had traditional Irish Fayre for tea - Burger King. Nadine phoned me - I could hear this time and we spoke briefly. She was happy that we'd met. Cathy and I hope to meet her in time too. On the flight home I chatted with a lad I'd spoken to that morning - Darren. He'd come over for his aunt's funeral. Though we didn't sit together on the flight, we did catch up on the bus back to the car park. He was a teacher and - I guessed correctly - taught history. He had a seven week old son. We both play guitar and bass. Like will find like.

But on the flight I sat with my notebook open - ready to write - to put onto paper the gamut of feelings that I'd experienced. And nothing came. I just felt extremely peaceful, and tired. And, above all else, happy. I looked out of the window as we flew over England - the large dark spaces between the yellow smudges of light showing how rural much of the country still is around the busy international airport of Stansted.

I got home at about 10.30pm and my good friend Penni was there, looking after the kids whilst B was at a rehearsal with his band. My son and Penni's daughter were sitting together in the front room watching football. Her team was winning, his was losing. Penni made me tea and I listened to her and chatted briefly, trying desperately to stay awake. My children were fine, happy, sleepy. Like me.

I went to bed with a grin on my face. I heard B come in and get into bed and hugged him - so glad to be home and warm and loved and secure. And still happy. And in the morning, back to work, still with a smile on my face and in my heart.

I am a very lucky person. I have good friends, a lovely family, and the desire and pleasure of writing and playing music.
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