I haven’t had much time to post lately, so I’ll give you a brief rundown of the last few (and very fun) bits of orientation.
Friday evening was the Ceili, which was held in a hall of an old church in Belfast sometimes used for Queen’s social events. Our meal was dark brown soda bread and hearty, delicious Irish stew, with potatoes, carrots, celery, kale and lamb for the meateaters. Happily, there was lamb-free stew for vegetarians like me. (I’m finding an abundance of veggie options in Belfast so far!) Throughout our meal, we were serenaded by a fiddler, accordion player and pianist, whose music would later accompany the Irish traditional dancing.
After eating, we were encouraged to participate in the dancing, which is very similar to American square dancing, right down to the disparaging humor of the caller. Each dance, he made promises such as, “As long as you know your left from your right, you can do this dance.” Of course, he carefully reminded us of this as we forgot the steps and stumbled around the hall. It was a lot of fun, and a nice way to get to know more of the international students as we bonded in our ineptitude.
Saturday night, we met in front of the Queen’s Student Union for a ghost tour of Belfast. We had a huge group that filled the sidewalk, but our two guides in ghastly face paint and lacy black garb diligently kept us together and projected so we could all (usually) hear. Most of the stories were sad rather than scary. One told of a minister’s son who died of plague in the early 1800s and whose ghost warned his father that grave robbers were pulling out his teeth. Human teeth were highly prized in those days as they were often used as replacements for rotten ones, and grave robbery was frequent. Of course, it was too late for the minister to project his son’s corpse by the time he took the ghost’s warning seriously.
I think the saddest story of all was about a seven-year-old boy who was killed during the Belfast blitz of 1941. According to the story, his ghost can be seen running up and down Donegall Place where he once lived, trying to find his way home.
The ghost tour gave us a bit of Belfast history and some views of the city by nightfall, but the Belfast city bus tour Sunday afternoon provided a thorough overview in the (admittedly clouded over) daylight. Our tour guide was hilarious. In addition to the expected sights, like Belfast’s impressive City Hall, he pointed out the house of, “The most optimistic man in Belfast. You see? He’s got an outdoor swimming pool.”
Banter like this went on and on. We reached the site of the new Titanic museum, which will open in March in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking. The Titanic, as you may know, was built in Belfast. “We always tell people, it was fine when it left Belfast,” our guide explained, “It was a Scottish captain and a Canadian iceberg what did her in.”
Inevitably, the tour also contained references to Belfast’s troubled past, some subtle, others not so much. We passed the most bombed hotel in Europe, which has been rebuilt 37 times, as well as the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods that are still surrounded by walls that open and close at certain times of day. However, while The Troubles cannot yet be forgotten in Northern Ireland, they are definitely over. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 led to a fairly rapid decrease in violence here, and Belfast is a very safe city today.
The bus tour dropped us off in front of Victoria’s Square, Belfast’s main shopping centre, where I bought the cheapest Northern Irish mobile phone available and enjoyed chatting with the phone store employees. One of the salesclerks has a degree in Politics from Queen’s (arguably the premier university of Northern Ireland), but is working in a phone store.
“Queen’s is a great school, but once you get out, it’s not so good,” he informed me. Just as the current economic situation back home is creating an unfavorable job market, Northern Irish students are finding it difficult to obtain meaningful work upon graduating uni. Hopefully that trend will turn around soon!
Now that I have convenient means of contacting people here, I feel much better settled already. I have a “wee mobile number” to give out to the new friends I’m meeting, and I had my first day of class yesterday! A post about my initial school experience is forthcoming.