A New Year in Beal Feirste!

I arrived in Belfast late on the 30th, bone tired after a long day of travel. I was happy to scratch a day of journeying off the ledger and start fresh the following day, so I turned in to dream about New Year’s Eve. My eyelids cracked open at 8:30a on the 31st and promptly snapped back shut, quite dismayed to realize the sun hadn’t fully come out. The space-heater had put up an admirable fight against the night’s colddamp but seemed to have surrendered at dawn. I struggled to shake off the blanket of heavy sleep and fumble down the many, many stairs to the dining room. I stopped at the 3rd floor landing to greet the still blue and bleary Belfast.

IMG_8396 copy

A breakfast of homemade scones, cereals, fruits, smoothie, pancakes, coffee and tea had been laid out by my gracious hostess, Mary.

IMG_8404 copy

I chatted up the Bostonian/ Californian couple staying with me- an audio tech and a PhD candidate studying Irish conflict history. They’d been in Belfast for a few days and were headed over to Scotland to ring in the New Year. We chatted about home and travels and parted ways- they to a ferry, myself to the streets.
IMG_8417 copy

Belfast wakes up a bit slower than I’m accustomed to, though we never actually go to sleep in New York, so I’ll admit my judgement may be a bit skewed. I kept company with two school kids awake before all the grown-ups and a gimpy stray as I descended on foot from Northern Belfast toward the city centre.
IMG_8421 copy

‘Take the Cliftonville Road to the Antrim Road and then on in ’til ya see something worth lookin’ at’, I was told, to which I replied, ‘It’s all worth looking at to me.’

IMG_8431 copy

Belfast is a city of nooks and crannies and alleys and back drives that my imagination fills with wild and illicit histories.IMG_8434 copy

The modern is layered in with the archaic. No eyeful is purely either.IMG_8440 copy

I was beginning to think I’d stumbled into a black hole. Where were all the people? It was cold and wet, sure, but the day had begun. After a few blocks, I found fresh(ish) signs of life. A bit of last night’s fun, mixed with rain?IMG_8446 copy copy

The weather had already begun to seep into my extremities, so I stumbled across the Belfast Central Library just in time warm up.

IMG_8451 copy

This gorgeous old building has been around since 1888 and houses a cafe, exhibition space in the lobby and a decent music & cultural collection.

I popped in and out of slowly-opening businesses, wandering in whichever direction held my interest longest.

IMG_8513 copy

I stumbled across Writer’s Square by accident. Opened in 2002- the plaza faces St. Anne’s Cathedral and features quotes from local greats, including C.S. Lewis, Lois MacNeice, Sam Hanna Bell and Stewart Parker. IMG_8544 copy

Once again slowed by the cold, I sought sanctuary in the cavernous (and not much warmer) St. Anne’s Cathedral- aka Belfast Cathedral. IMG_8556 copyThis impressive example of neo-Romanesque architecture was built in 1899 and features some gorgeous mosaic murals and a very friendly welcoming crew.

IMG_8562 copy

IMG_8585 copy

Traveling in the cold means bursts of exploring between tea/ coffee/ food fill-ups. I was thrilled to stumble across The National Grande Cafe– I’d first learned of it while flitting about the Twitterland of the fine folks at ForkedIMG_8591 copy

I started off with a cappuccino. The coffee scene is odd here- there seems to be a boost of Italian-inspired espresso coffee culture that mingles alongside A LOT of instant coffee. I was really pleased to sip on this solidly crafted beverage.IMG_8594 copy copy IMG_8597 copy copy

I was really pleased with the variety of fresh, artesianal menu choices. I ordered a tomato, red pepper and balsamic vinegar soup with a grilled pastrami, chili and Emmental sandwich. This is a what a hot sandwich should be- creamy and savory with a kick. The soup was a beautiful balance of sweet and tart.

1495292_826915973553_400139963_o

I ambled about for another few hours before finding myself at Muriel’s. It was pitch dark and not yet 6p. I settled in to write and reflect and warm up with a drink and was quickly joined by a handful of fellas who turned that lonely Guinness into a cocktail or two or four. Things got rowdy and I skedaddled back to my cozy Airbnb digs to ring in the New Year with my lovely hostess Mary and her dog Bailey in front of her roaring fire place.

I swam back mentally to December 31st, 2012, and found myself in a tiny hostel bedroom in San Jose, Costa Rica, grateful to have landed on my feet in another exciting new land of the cusp of a new year. Surprising myself is my every day resolution, so I slipped off to sleep after 30+ conscious hours with not one utterance of what I expected 2014 to be.

In return for so much, what shall we give back? NYC-DUBLIN-BELFAST

1544385_826453749853_1970238465_n

I’ll fast-forward through the logistics of my journey for now. You can probably paint the picture. Subway to NJ transit to Airtrain to overnight flight to bus ride to long delay at a train station to long train ride to bus ride.

I began reading Forever by Pete Hamill on the plane- a Christmas gift! So far, I’ve found it haunting and magical. I’m not very far in. I’ll keep you posted.

1555413_826439902603_281941148_n

I had a bit of time in Dublin before my train to Belfast. Once I located Connolly Station, I explored the area a bit. Forgive the phone pictures. I kept my camera gear wrapped up tight because I was carrying all my luggage and it was raining. Don’t fret- I’ll be stomping around Dublin at the end of this trip.

I did poke my head in every coffee shop I passed to see what the menus had to offer. Espresso seems big here, but iced coffee- not so much. Strong, chilled and decently prepared coffee rates pretty high on my list of  basic survival needs. Don’t be fooled. I can survive (and often thrive) in some pretty rustic conditions, but I have become accustomed to being able to get an awesome cup of iced coffee several times a day, every day. I had a pretty mediocre hot cuppa at Connolly first thing off the bus.  I investigated several shops who proved to have no iced options. The anxious sharks began circling in my stomach as I strolled back down Abbey St. And then…

WP_20131230_008

Bewley’s grabbed my attention from the window of Arnott’s department store. I peeped through the window, and the words ‘iced coffee’ appeared together on the menu. After chatting with a really helpful barista who clarified- ‘iced coffees’ are frozen, blended drinks- I talked her through making her first Iced Americano with Skim. It was glorious.

WP_20131230_010

The journey to Belfast was a bit of a blur. I sat with a young Irish girl who’d come home to surprise her boyfriend for New Year’s and a Grandma coming home from holiday shopping. They were lovely, but I was so travellagged that putting together a cohesive sentence was a struggle. And so, I zoned.

1523079_826564203503_672563016_o

I’ve been in Belfast for less than two hours. After wandering the rapidly-darkening streets of the City Centre without a map I finally stumbled upon the bus stop I needed. When I realized I only had Euros and no sterling, my fare was paid for me on the bus by a stranger named Paulie who told me about her family and her Christmas and her cousin who danced in Riverdance and maybe I knew her? and how lovely that I’d be visiting the south and of course she’d get off at my stop with me instead of her own (it wasn’t that much further and despite her leg braces walking was really no bother at all) so she could see to it herself that I got to my destination and deposited me on the doorstep. We parted ways with a big hug and a Very Happy New Years to Ya and Best of Luck in the Year 2014!

The door opened and I was greeted with an equally warm and enthusiastic smile (two to be exact, as my host Mary’s daughter was home). My bags were whisked up to my room and a tour was given and was I hungry? Did I want tea? Or coffee? Juice? All of the above?

IMG_8351 copy copy

Cease fast forward. Press play. A moment of static and then… I’m sitting in the loveliest, homiest kitchen I’ve ever seen in a little Victorian near Alexandra Park in Belfast, sipping tea and juice and eating homemade scones with fresh butter for supper. I’m alone and it’s quiet. In this moment I feel filthy from traveling through non-stop rain since Brooklyn, achy from bag-schlepping and drained from 28+ hours sleep free. I also feel, quite possibly, the most exquisitely civilized I’ve ever felt. I’m exhausted, but wrapped in a very welcome embrace, which makes tired feel good. Necessary. Part of a process of unpacking onself and becoming untired.

IMG_8378 copy

And now, to rest and dream of what I want to do with the last day of 2013. How did I get so lucky?