Thursday, December 14, 2006


The other day, my wonderful little sister and I were reviewing the past few years of our lives via Skype when the topic of boys naturally came up (what girly conversation doesn't?) And after a brief rundown of our respective romantic histories, Amy told me she thought I had made a mistake letting one go.
I don't think she thought much about the comment, but I was forced to do some mental acrobatics to determine if she was right or not. Then I realized that, by merely using mental efforts rather than efforts from the heart, I was proving my own point: nope, he had to go. That was not a mistake.
Love is tricky. But it's not so scary that taking the easy road-- and settling for something that, deep down, I knew was good, but not earth-shatteringly wonderful-- was ever an option.
Sometimes getting out of status quo and forcing yourself to turn down "good" in anticipation for "great" is one of the hardest things to do. But I remain convinced that it is also one of the most important.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

I wear this to test your English!

"NEVER talk to the Ciao Bellas!" In Spain, they're the Hola Guapas, and I hated them more than anything, but somehow the Italian Ciao Bellas seemed more harmless. Maybe because I was too intrigued with everything else to really notice them. I just got back from a loooong vacation in Florence and Rome, visiting Shauna, Megan and Taniko, and I loved every second. I don't think I could fit a decent description of the bizarre characters I met so I will revert to the classic bullet point of events and people I thought were interesting:

  • The first day I somehow found myself on the banks of the Arno, drinking white wine out of Dixie cups with a couple Italian-Tunisians. Learned some Arabic, finally went to Thanksgiving dinner at the girls' culinary-school neighbors'. At midnight. With a massive headache.

  • We were having dinner at a little trattoria by the girls' apartment when we met an older guy who turned out to be a Prada exec in Florence on business. We kicked it for a while, he told us some jokes, and left. We sat there thinking, Did we just make friends with a Prada exec? I think so!

  • Megan turned 22. A night for the record books including: an excess of free shots, a Montanan wearing a cowboy hat and a disgusting t-shirt, and of course, Giacomo, an Italian who spoke Spanish, inspiring the girls to overuse the word "Spaniard."

  • Saw Michaelangelo's David (17 feet of amazingness). A few days later, I was at the Palazzo Pitti when I saw an old guy in a UW hat so I started talking to him, only to hear a rousing critique of Michaelangelo's sculpting ability (who does that?!), topped off by a graphic and disdainful description of David's manhood. He even went so far as to bust out his guidebook and point out how poorly depicted David's pubes were. This is a true story, unfortunately.

  • The four of us watched the world's most beautiful sunset from the Boboli Gardens on the city wall. This is an instance in which a picture is worth a thousand words, but the sun setting over the Tuscan hills was a moment I will never ever forget!

  • Was standing in the SMN train station when a middle-aged guy came up and started talking to me, ignoring the fact that I don't speak Italian, and proceeded to carry my bags for me and sit next to me on the train. After two hours of hilarious conversation (we knew NONE of the same words), he got off, and I thought, 'I could not possibly meet another randomer on this trip. My quota is definitely met.' But I was wrong, enter:

  • Angelo. The most attractive Italian man I had seen my entire time there sat in the compartment next to mine. I took a nap so as not to stare. But he eventually moved over and started talking to me, in ENGLISH, so I was forced to look at him (life's rough sometimes). Angelo, as it turns out, is an Italian TV star. Angelo also owns a Vespa and was willing to carry my bags. Long story short, I saw a bit of the Eternal City on the back of his bike, and all I can say about Rome is SHOCK AND AWE. I can't wait to get back next summer. Angelo turned out to be less than awesome, but the point is... well, there really isn't a point to this story, actually.

  • For various reasons, I found myself on the opposite end of the city than I'd intended the day I left, and I was trying to get the metro back to Termini. I checked out of my hotel and the manager tried to tell me something... but unfortunately, all I know in Italian is 'Non capisco,' 'Molto grazie,' and 'Me dice dov'e devo scendere per Castello Medici?' and that wasn't getting me anywhere. All I have to say is THANK GOD FOR THE PERUVIAN MAID, who translated the manager's bad news into Spanish: "No hay Metro por razon de la huelga!" Huelga...huelga... STRIKE. Yes, my only means of making my flight was closed due to strike, and since all the taxis were full, my only option was a 50 euro private car to the airport. Do they have any idea what an intern's budget is? Eventually I got a taxi and made it to my plane at the last minute, but the last morning in Rome was NOT a fun one. On the plus side, the taxi driver was funny, and despite the fact that I kept trying to pass Spanish off as Italian, we had a good time on the way to Ciampino.
But the most surprising thing that came out of my trip? So I met a guy Chris on the airport bus when I first landed in Rome. We got along really well, he's just a nice little Belfast boy, but we parted ways in Rome and I was just glad I didn't have to talk to a weirdo for that half hour... I didn't really think more about it, but I was so surprised when he walked into my office today with a note and a card... filled with W.B. Yeats and his phone number! I was so floored to see him that I forgot to ask questions... later Desi told me that apparently he'd gone to the Drennan's house to try to find me before heading to the church! I forgot I even told him where I worked... and getting surprise poetry was definitely a first. Deborah freaked out and said my life was too much like a movie... and based on the past week I'm inclined to agree! It is so good to be back in Belfast right now, though, even if I did have to trade sunny days for wind and rain :) But wandering the streets of Firenze, enjoying the art and architecture and FOOD and people and my friends, was unbelievable! I'm so lucky!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Just Because It's Painted Over...

doesn't mean they don't feel it.

"All Blacks Out"-- this is graffiti on both ends of my neighborhood in reaction to the two Zambian families who moved in this year. Eli and I met the 14-year-old daughter in one family, Ngoma, who told us that she has never liked Belfast because it is too difficult for minorities and, upon hearing that we're American, proceeded to call her friend after we had gone inside and squeal, "AMERICANS! In MY neighborhood!" Her dream is to move to America someday, and quite frankly I don't blame her.
Malia's newest blog post ( got me thinking again of one of the other problems that permeates Belfast, but one that is generally sidelined or overshadowed by the sectarian wars: the quiet but deadly cultural malaise of serious racism. Belfast was recently dubbed with the unappealing moniker of "racism capital of Europe," and all I can think when I hear that is "Thank God it doesn't get worse than this; thank God this isn't status quo." The thing that makes her story difficult to stomach is that it came from middle-class, suburban kids who were being educated in some of the best schools in Northern Ireland, indicating that the working class isn't the only one with seriously backward ideology.
Though I constantly hear stories of minorities yelled at on the street and other sickening treatment aimed at immigrants, it wasn't until I starting spending time with North Belfast teenagers that I began to realize how palpable and blatant racism can actually be. Growing up in a time and place where any kind of racism is looked at as a personality flaw, I was amazed when I went out for coffee with one of my tougher girls, Jolene. She was cooperating with my usual game of Twenty Questions when, seemingly out of nowhere, the subject of Chinese people came up (Josh, cover your ears, because I wish I could have). It was like opening Pandora's Box of racist ideology. I had to interrupt her torrent of negativity to ask about African immigrants, the Middle Eastern population, and a variety of other minorities. She had nothing but glowing reports on all of them, but somehow had chosen Belfast's Chinese as the butt of her ignorant, hateful opinions.
Other people are different, claiming to "love" the Chinese population for whatever reason and wishing that all black people would "go back to Africa." A few weeks ago, I met a group of kids playing football behind the church and walked with a bunch of them down the Crumlin as I made my way to the Vine (the community outreach center). The mild conversation was broken when one of the boys suddenly yelled “N*****!” across the street. In shock, I glanced over to see a black guy getting into a car with a white friend after throwing the fingers at the boy I was with. “What did you just say?” I asked, trying to keep from roaring at him. The boy was flippant. “It’s ok. He knows 50 Cent.” "Never ever say that word again, especially in front of me,” I roared while thoughts of throttling him (or his parents, or peers, or whoever taught him that things like that were okay) ran briefly through my mind. My dilemma then became this: I can’t be mad at the kid. He is surrounded by ideologies that tell him it’s ok to do things like that. But Belfast, especially north Belfast, is drowning in a tide of racism that can’t be stopped unless small incidences like that can be stopped first (or is it the other way around?). The Zambian families with mega-watt smiles living amongst "Blacks Out" signage, the glaring lack of minorities in the city center… things like this make me uncomfortable. The fact that Belfast cannot stop its ethnic conflict, let alone incorporate a racial conflict on top of it, is evidence of a city deeply wounded. If BandAids aren’t working, I wish we could apply stitches, but it’s difficult when the injured aren’t entirely aware of their wounds and don’t want to see a doctor anyway. And as much as I wish I could say that I think things are getting better, I don't. Not only is the sectarian conflict being aggravated, racist attacks are increasing as well, and I just shake my head and wonder, What is going on here?

Monday, November 13, 2006

What It Is!

Sometimes all it really takes to feel like a normal person again is a really long laugh with someone you love... and since I am so lucky to have had Schlosser visit over the weekend, I am reminded of who I am and what it's about. I was a bit nervous to have her come to my little corner of Northern Ireland after she had spent so much time seeing all the glamorous places in Europe, partying in Italy and drinking beer in Munich. To come to a place like this was going to be a shock to her system, and I didn’t really know how to explain everything, let alone justify it. But Aimee showed up, nearly a month into her European adventure, with a totally expanded worldview and willingness to become a part of wherever she was. She really impressed me, actually. I am reminded of how much I love her heart.
Schlossmo showed up late from Dublin and we headed straight to the Crown Saloon, her huge backpack in tow, and had Stella in hand within ten minutes of her arrival. When in Rome, we say. Before I had even gotten back from the bar, which took a bit longer because I had to bitch to the bartender about how they didn't pour Harp (this is BELFAST... what do you mean, NO HARP?), Aim had discovered the two guys in the bar who were under the age of thirty. So Madrileno Faro and Salzburgite (not a word) Thomas became our partners in crime for the night, which was an interesting choice to say the least. On the plus side, I got to speak Spanish, we got free passes to a "trendy" club, and despite lacking a bit in the English department Thomas completely got us and actually thought we were funny so of course we loved him. On the down side, there was some really ugly dancing at said club and Aim and I were unsuccessful at explaining the meaning of "that girl," which apparently doesn't translate (side note: after a long discussion on the meaning, Aim and I decided to be walking examples and in fact became "those girls").

Throughout our lovefest of a weekend, I spent a lot of my time translating for her, especially at YF when she was surrounded with “the craziest bunch of teenagers” she had ever met in her life. I had to laugh when they informed me I must be losing my American edge because her accent was so strong. She did really well though, for being thrown to the wolves, and they loved her. But I can’t wait to see their faces next week when we tell them she’s Catholic… for being so world-wise, they really are sheltered in so many ways. Alison mentioned to Aim that they all think I’m crazy because I walk to work through Ardoyne, because I get coffee at the Toasted Soda, and now to have Catholic friends who they actually LIKE… it’s going to blow their minds! It’d be funnier if it weren’t so sad!
On Sunday, as Aimee and I tooled around Belfast looking at murals on both sides of the peace line, I think it all became real when we spotted a massive Home Depot-type building that was completely collapsed and charred from a firebomb a couple weeks ago. Apparently it’s the work of the Real IRA, a radical offshoot of the Provos (Provisional IRA, which from what I can tell is getting increasingly united with Sinn Féin, its political wing, and naturally has become much less violent in the process). So members of the RIRA don’t agree with the talks that are going on in Stormont right now to create some kind of workable power-sharing Northern Irish government, because they don’t think the Sinn Féin (via Gerry Adams) should be trying to cooperate with Protestant leaders. So instead of peaceful demonstrations against the negotiations, they’d prefer to firebomb buildings. Not surprisingly, the US has the RIRA categorized as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Since the Good Friday Agreement, they have supposedly agreed to ceasefire, but still are pretty into planting car bombs, bombing rail stations in England, etc., including a couple places in Belfast in the last few weeks. Kathryn, who was driving, told us that that particular shop most likely had 50 or more Catholics working there, ie. the RIRA just put dozens of their own “people” out of work in the name of revolution, in an attempt to spur Catholics toward a more hard-line stance against what they consider political acquiescence. The logic is so absent it’s astounding.
Seeing Belfast through Aimee’s eyes revived my fascination with the history, the personality, and the people of the north and west ends of the city, and I remember why I wanted to be here in the first place. Everywhere you go you are walking on ground steeped in historical conflict and potential turbulence. There’s an edge to it, and it’s unreal sometimes. It was amazing to have someone to remind me of what a dork I am and laugh at nothing for way too long! I waved goodbye as her bus pulled away, we both tried not to cry, and I realized that it’s much easier to be the one leaving than to be the one left…

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

This Week's Sign of the Apocalypse

Based on all the news I have heard lately, which is a bigger sign of the Apocalypse:
Kim Jung-Il testing nuclear weapons or Madonna adopting a Malawian baby?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Innocent Intern and the Series of Events (Unfortunate and Otherwise)

Alright, I am going to come right out and make a confession here. I made it through the third grade epidemic without getting lice but I didn’t make it through age 22. That’s right, since I last wrote, a major event has been the unwelcome acquisition of nits. As I write this, I realize that a lot of my friends hate kids, always thought it was annoying that I loved them, and they are probably getting the last laugh right now at the thought of me paying the price for hanging around grubby primary schoolers all the time. (They’re gone now, by the way. The lice, not the kids.)
Other inconveniences include the arson of our church minibus, which, along with a few other cars in the neighborhood, got torched down to a piece of charred scrap metal last weekend. When the church copy machine broke the same morning, I honestly felt like we’d been left with just our four walls! Since there is no way we can afford to buy new stuff, I’ve started to devote my energy to researching and applying for grants for just about everything, because we are totally broke.
But Belfast is, bit by bit, becoming home. I have thankfully been hanging out with Mark and Steve a bit (the male half of the Woodvale Four from Deputation) and they are the kind of friends where, even though it’s been two years, it’s like nothing has changed. There aren’t many people who make me laugh as much as they do, and it’s really nice to have people you don’t have to start from scratch with. I also started my course at Union Theological College, which is AMAZING and it really makes me happy to still be in school in some way.
The old people at Crumlin Road continue to impress me. They all call me “That Big Girl” until they learn my name (I am seriously considered a giant here), and the language barrier apparently is still a problem: “I overheard Laura talking with Jean and Marjorie yesterday and it literally sounded like Chinese. But they just kept nodding their heads like they understood her!” --Direct quote from an elder in the church. I think I should have gone to some kind of manners school that teaches you how to speak properly, because even my own family tends to struggle to understand me, which would indicate that I have created my own strange little dialect. Other harassment includes abuse such as “Hey Star Spangled Banner, what’s up with Americans coming over here and eating all our cheese?” (This kind of thing is usually said within ear shot, but not directly to me, so as to up the humor ante, which usually I think is quite clever of those wee old men).
There are a few funny stories that stand out to me from the past weeks:
1. I am doing a literacy program at a primary school and working with a homework club as well (Mathilde, who runs the program, says that most of the kids are just plopped in front of a TV everyday, and their imaginations and communication skills are really stunted—one kid knew the word for machine gun, but not butterfly!). Today I was handing out fruit for snack time and telling the kids, “You better eat these apples, you don’t want to get scurvy. You know what scurvy is? Pirates get it when they’ve been at sea and don’t eat any Vitamin C. You’ll start talking like one. Eat the apples.” So this one kid absolutely refused to take an apple and kept saying, “No thanks! I want to talk like a pirate! ARRGHH!” And then all the boys started squinting one eye and walking around talking like Blackbeard. So much for my nutrition lesson.

2. Again, don’t judge me for this, but I hate coming home to an empty house, and since Peter and I live in a terraced house that’s three stories, I always hear noises from the neighbors and think they’re coming from upstairs. I wish I could say this next part is a joke, but it’s not. I was so scared one night that I grabbed a butcher knife from the kitchen and tromped around the entire house, peeking in every corner and ready to clobber anyone who would dare come into my place uninvited. This is why I don’t watch scary movies- my imagination is already active enough. Anyway, even though it’s always the girl who opens the closet who gets killed in scary movies, I’m not blonde and I’m not running through sprinklers in my underwear so I figure I’m ok. And I’d rather go find the robbers than let them come find me. Thinking I may have a future in home security. Just me and my knife, going into business.

3. Let’s talk about Olive, an old lady from around the corner who always yells at me for living in such a ghetto house (sample conversation: Me: Morning, Olive! How are you? Olive: Get those windows clean!). I think she likes me because I am willing to commiserate with her (“I know Olive, the place sucks. TELL me about it!”) Northern Irish people love when people will bitch with them, so I humor her! Anyway I am getting a serious history of the neighborhood from this woman, most of which I don’t want to hear, like how the club on the next block is owned by the UVF (big paramilitary in North Belfast), how some guy got both his arms broken in the alley I walk through to the grocery store (ten years ago, but you’d think it was last week the way she talks about it), and every minor flaw in the pastors in the area. I can only imagine what this woman says about me to my neighbors. If you come to visit, Olive is a must-meet.
(Side note for Dad: I did some research and Belfast has one of the lowest crime rates in the industrialized world. So don’t worry, really I’m much better off now…)

4. My bike. A hand-me-down from Alison, this bike is older than Belfast itself and the tires require pumping if I’ve ridden it for more than twenty minutes. It’s missing its kickstand, has a makeshift left pedal from when the old one fell off, and let’s just say it’s not NOT rusty. True story: Malia and I saw a homeless guy riding his bike downtown and it’s an understatement to say it was much nicer than mine. Rock bottom, or a great conversation starter? On the up side, when kids laugh at me and want to try to ride it, it’s the easiest thing in the world to make friends with them (“We thought all Americans had pools and three-car garages! What the hell is she doing with scrap metal!?”)

5. I tried to type out the story of how our neighbor Mark exploded a raw egg into Peter’s car after squeezing it “all morning” trying to break it, but it just makes no sense in real life, let alone written down. Moral of the story: my neighbors apparently spend entire mornings trying to break eggs in unconventional ways, but don’t succeed until the egg’s trajectory is aimed at a car interior. Such is life for your average strapping male citizen of North Belfast, and one of the reasons we need social workers STAT!

Life is interesting.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Some great days in Northern Ireland

A couple weekends ago we all went to the beach, technically to go surfing but really to get out of Belfast, visit Tosti and Rosanna at the Downhill Hostel, and play in the sun!
Tosti and Yonkers working out their game plan... Lookin good Yonks, sorry for posting your topless pics on my blog...

My favorite girl!
Yonkers was better than he let on, and he caught some good waves despite the fact that the surf wasn't that great...

This was after Graham, Eli, Malia and I got caught on Cave Hill during the rainstorm... they've just scaled that cliff, Graham bailed, and we were all covered with mud but look how manly they are! Haha!
Malia and I at the Stiff Kitten, totally sweaty and totally happy with the random European dance music!

Graham and I downtown imitating every sculpture we could find in between intense rounds of "Would You Rather?"

Chris and I at Woodvale Park... two year reunion! I love this kid!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Words I swore I'd never use

which are now staples in my vocabulary:
any derogatory nicknames that generally mean douchebag, ie; tosser, header, wanker
And their opposite, "love," which is one of my favorite pet names that applies to everyone:
"You alright, love?"
"Your man"- UK equivalent to "whatshisface"
wee- use this word in reference to anything, at any time. seriously. throw it in a sentence and it'll probably work. "Your wee man's a tosser."
sussed- figured out. "Don't worry, it's all been sussed out."
Other quirks include:
adding "like," "just" or "but" to the end of sentences rather than beginnings:
"It's a nice house but." "I'll have two just." "It's two o'clock like."
"That's me"/"I'm away"- I'm leaving. Peace.
Do your head in- drive you crazy
"What about you?"- this means what's up, but it comes out "Boutchee?" and did my head in for a long time
Aye- yes. This one sounds a lot better than "yeah" to me and I started saying, "Oh aye" without even realizing it. People probably think I'm a total tosser.

Can't tell you how many times I've heard that Gig Harbor kids have an accent and vocab all our own, well here in the UK, "As soon as you open your mouth and say even two or three words people know where you are from, what you do for a living, who you know, how much you earn and who you vote for." That's like someone from Fremont picking out a Belltown resident after the first sentence. I'm getting there, but the cards are stacked against me; not only do I work in North Belfast where the accent is super thick, but I work with teenagers who won't slow down or say a sentence without 50% obscure slang. Once I get downtown (not much more than a mile away) the language becomes crystal clear to me. Still, they put the emPHAsis on the wrong syllABle, add vowels which completely change a word (aluminium, anyone?), and refuse to open their mouths when they talk (don't hate me for my blatant generalizing). Rumor has it the people here in Norn Arn speak English... but I'm gonna need more evidence.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Casualty Count: 0

I thought that maybe moving over here seemed a bit simple, so it was only natural that I have a rough week at some point! The last couple weeks have involved more than a few tears, a bit of realism, and an afternoon in the ER.
Vocab lessons to follow, but my "wee" lesson of the day was the discovery that the ER is referred to here as the "casualty." Excuse me? To me this word can only refer, in some way, to me not being alive anymore, and I wanted nothing to do with it! But I couldn't avoid it any longer after what I thought was a bruised rib turned into something that made every heartbeat and deep breath HURT! (Cut to me, sitting all alone in a massive Belfast hospital, thinking I am about to die- cue tears and me practicing my "big brave girl" face). But after cardiac tests and a failed blood exam (during which I almost passed out before the doctor could even get any blood), his best guess was an inflamed lung, and he sent me on my way. A whole depressing afternoon of watching babies with bonked heads, broken limbs, drugged up men and crying girls run through the hospital and all I got was a prescription for ibuprofen?
But the inflamed lung was only the clincher of the rough week I think of as my adjustment phase. Just three weeks into it and I think a lot of things hit me at once: how difficult my job actually is, how isolated and lonely I feel so much of the time, and the total lack of structure my year has. In a lot of ways I am starting everything from scratch. After so long in the Greek system/INN safety net, I have to be much more intentional with my relationships. I don't have 40 girls living on the same floor. I don't have church services with hundreds of people to talk to. I have to seek out and take advantage of every opportunity to meet people and spend time with them that I possibly can, and I am realizing that I just have a really hard time being alone for extended periods of time. On one hand I appreciate the fact that I can take lots of time for myself- to read, to study a bit, to think, to ask questions. On the other hand, I miss having people around constantly!
So I have been working really hard on creating my own community again. I met one of the elders at Crumlin Road, and when I found out his visitation schedule, I just invited myself along. Let me tell you, there is nothing I love more than sitting around drinking tea and eating shortbread while listening to old people tell stories, and somehow I have a job that EXPECTS me to do that. Anyway, I am quickly discovering how weighty the stories from this area can be. After a morning of hearing tales of talented girls who committed suicide, boys who get beat up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and other sad stories collected after lifetimes in north Belfast, I came back to the Drennans on the verge of tears (not an unusual state for me lately). All my normal questions that I run past people failed me. All I could think of to ask Jack was, "Does it ever stop striking you as glaringly painful and unjust? When does someone stop seeing this entire situation as individual faces and stories that will break you down and start seeing the entire situation as a fact of life?" He told me that at some point, you have to harden yourself up to it. You just can't let your heart be torn open every time you see or hear something that really is heartbreaking-- you have to let it bounce off you, to some extent, for your own survival. And finding the balance between hardening yourself to the situation and still letting yourself be sensitive to it enough to change it is the struggle.
So I've been struggling. But I've been learning how to be satisfied with life as it comes at me, whether it's a day when the teenagers almost kill each other or a day when I get to hang out at Fisherwick with Yonkers, Eli, Malia and Peter and get some down time. There are plenty of things to be joyful about, it's whether or not I'm willing to look for them, and I am adjusting to living for the little pictures as well as the big one.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Why I'm Happy Right Now

Here's to baby steps:
Alison came over tonight with a tiny victory. "Laura, you'd have been so proud of me today. I went into Ardoyne, sat down at the Toasted Soda and ate my lunch. The whole time I was looking around thinking, NO ONE here can tell I'm a Protestant! And I'm ok! I thought, if Laura can come into this neighborhood and buy a newspaper, I can too. I couldn't wait to tell you!"
All this, from a 27 year old street-wise social worker educated all over the UK. I could have cried, but I settled for just hugging her.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Showing my teeth in Ardoyne

So the past week has flown; Graham came to visit in between London and Budapest, and Eli Grindstaff got here too. So Malia and I wanted to take them up Cavehill to show them the coolest view of Belfast, but of course neither of us has a very keen sense of direction. What was meant to be a fun afternoon walk turned into a survival-of-the-fittest escape drama, during which we got caught in what we affectionately referred to as a "squall" (the boys got acquainted with Northern Ireland's special sideways rain), completely lost the trail, and slid on our asses most of the way down. Oh, and Eli and I ran into some kind of vicious plant that felt strangely similar to poison ivy. They never saw the summit, unfortunately, but we're alive.
There's a group of hilarious people at Crumlin Road who are all in their 20s and 30s, and I don't know what I'd do without them, because they let me tag along to the bars and they feed me really well. Alison, who's a social worker and is about 13 at heart, made me dinner last week and we spent the whole night laughing and solving all the world's problems. She's a realist, but she's an awesome encourager as well, and as I told her how strange it was for me to come into a program that is essentially whatever I want it to be, she said, "Laura, you are absolutely the best person for the job. The kids were drawn to you from Day 1, you made friends with the teenagers really quickly, and you have enough initiative to make this job a success on both ends. Just you being excited about this place makes other people sit up and think, why is she excited? Why shouldn't I be excited too?" I felt a little better after that :)
Since we still haven't wrangled bikes, walking has been our main mode of transport (good thing, too, because somehow I've become the girl who doesn't stop eating), and Malia and I made the trek from the Drennans' to Woodvale for the kids' camp every day last week. It's about a 45 minute walk, and we didn't think anything of it until Alison mentioned that we should watch our backs walking through Ardoyne. At that point I didn't even know what Ardoyne was, but we quickly learned that to get from one Protestant area to another (Ballysillan to Woodvale), we'd had to walk through a Catholic area (Ardoyne), and one in which Alison claimed we would never see Protestants walking or doing business. I don't think I've mentioned how little business actually goes on in my little corner of northwest Belfast- whereas the Shankill is full of life and people and businesses, Crumlin and Ballysillan are dead zones- a byproduct of poor city planning as well as cultural and economic depression. Malia and I have been dreaming of finding a coffee shop with WiFi in our area and came across "The Toasted Soda" on our way to Woodvale. I asked Alison if she'd ever been in there, and she laughed and said, "No! And I never will, it's a Catholic business, just like all the others on that row." I was actually stunned into silence. "And you'll never see a Protestant so much as walk through that area either... too dangerous."
Of course, being the nerd that I am, that night I got on Wikipedia and looked up the Shankill, the Falls, Ardoyne, Ballysillan and Woodvale, just to compare. All of them were flashpoints during the Troubles, and my innocent jaunts through Ardoyne were actually, unbeknownst to me, mini historical tours of the Protestant "no-go zone." Peter even pointed out the police camera that still patrols the main roundabout in case of trouble. But the consensus is that we will be fine no matter where we go, since we're Americans. And whenever we ask how they can tell before we talk, most people say, "You have perfect teeth." I say, thanks, my parents paid a ton for them! And figure if I try to show them, no one will think twice about us wandering naively in random locales.
So just a little background to Woodvale: it's the reason Malia and I were so passionate about coming back here. At the top of the Shankill and filled with kids who are more than willing to love you and let you love them, the short time we spent there on Dep made us laugh louder and cry harder than anywhere else. We were so broken for the community during our short stay that we knew we needed more time, so that's why we were more than happy to help out with the club last week. We were so happy to be spending time with Kaitlyn, Andrew, and a few of the other kids we had bonded with, but I still hadn't seen Chris, though I didn't really expect to. Chris was a 16 year old goth kid we made friends with two years ago. His dad is in the UDA, he was always hanging out in the park when we were there, always critical of everything we did, and for some reason I just really wanted to get to know him. This was the kid who idolized Marilyn Manson but thought the church was one of the scariest things he could think of. I think half of the stuff he said was meant to get a rise out of us, but by the end of the week he was getting into the football tournament we were running at the park and even came into the church on the last night ("You guys really don't act like any of the Christians I know..."). When we look back on the people who really defined our experience, Chris is one of the names that always comes up. On Wednesday, as we walked past the teenager room, Malia grabbed my arm and whispered, "Laura, CHRIS is in there!" Needless to say I was thrilled to see him! He's lost the piercings, gained a few tattoos, and wants to be an actor. We spent most of the day on Thursday hanging out with him and talking more about his life, and it was by far the most interesting conversation I've had since I got here. Even though Chris doesn't want anything to do with the paramilitaries and is actually blacklisted from the UDA and UVF, it is so evident that he was raised with a separatist mentality that strongly borders on hate. He reaffirmed the idea that he would never be able to walk from his house to my house because the Catholics in between "would leave him for dead." When we asked if he would ever support a more integrated Northwest Belfast, he just laughed, "And let 'them' come into our neighborhoods and take our jobs? As long as people like me are around, that will never happen." I couldn't help but wonder what it was he was so protective of... to me, an outsider, not only did everyone look the same ("Oh, but you can tell a Catholic by his jersey/haircut/accent"), but the streets were just as sad in both areas. But the line has been drawn.
Which brings me to what else has taken up a lot of my thoughts this past week: The Peace Wall. It separates the Catholic Falls Road from the Protestant Shankill, and it's much easier to think about abstractly. I kind of wish I were living on the Falls side: the accent is prettier, and the street signs are in Gaelic as well as English. Yet history makes it so these are two apparently irreconcilable worlds, separated by a wall that does little more than remind people that "they" are on that side and "we" are on this side, and that it should stay that way. I asked Peter if we could pull a Reagan/Berlin Wall-style coup and just start tearing it down. He said that he thinks it mostly does more harm than good, but that when things get touchy and people start throwing petrol bombs over it, he's not so sure. So the wall remains.
Just when I think I am starting to get comfortable with living in a place that has so much turmoil ingrained in its personality, I'll think twice about something small and it will strike me as unusually bizarre. This happened in my trip through Ardoyne situation and again when we drove past the Mater Hospital. Jack jokingly mentioned that if we're going to get shot, we're in the right place, because Belfast hospitals are the best in the world at treating gunshot wounds. It's quite the paradox for me to think that we are living in what used to be one of the touchiest war zones in the world and now claims to be the safest city in Europe.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Thunderbolts and the Belfast Blitz

“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” -E.B. White

That summarizes my first week in Belfast perfectly. We’ve gone out a couple times, danced a ton (to the point of sustaining my first war wound- a swollen knee- after dancing into a stage), and really enjoyed downtown nightlife, but also seen what a challenge my life will be this year. I wish there were an easy way to find that balance of improving things and enjoying them.
As far as the quick rundown goes, I started work the morning after I landed and have been surrounded by dozens of six year olds since then, doing the Crumlin Road day camp (interesting fact: Crumlin Road was bombed by Hitler in the Belfast Blitz of 1941 and the church was rebuilt after having stood there for about 100 years) and this week we're popping over to Woodvale to see our favorites from Deputation. We are living at the Drennans because the house that Peter and I are moving in to has no fridge and no standards of cleanliness…but we’ve gone in with bleach and boiling water, so don’t worry… you guys should still come visit! There’s a guest room! Malia has been having a field day taking video of the place and there will be some serious before and after shots that I’ll post when I’m all done “girlying the place up.”
Last night Malia and I made dinner for the Drennans and sat out in the twilight drinking wine and talking before they got home. I’ve spent a lot of time meeting tons of people in the past week, and each of them has a perspective on the community and the church, the demographics and the teenagers I’ll be working with. Honestly I felt like I had hit an early dead-end, because I kept getting questioned at every turn. At the bars, guys ask, “WHY would you be living in Ballysillan?” And even the Crumlin Road people are warning me, “Wait till mid-year, we’ll see how positive your outlook is by then.” I knew what I had gotten myself into before I stepped onto the plane, but it’s made me seriously question myself.
Just to give an idea of the neighborhood and community I am living in, I thought I’d include an excerpt from some of the reports Jack gave me, because they bring me to my knees in how heartbroken I am for this area and how monumental the task of bringing light to this area truly is:
“Over the years the area has become synonymous with deprivation and hopelessness… 92% of births are to unmarried mothers, 64% of people are economically inactive, only 2% have a degree.” Community complaints include the fact that the Housing Executive (basically the branch that runs placement and construction of the projects, like my neighborhood) dumps “undesirable/problem families” consistently into this area, it is ignored by politicians, drugs run rampant and are propagated by the paramilitaries even more in this economically depressed area, which also perpetuates crime. The youth have no incentive to do well in school because there are no jobs to be had, so it is much easier for the girls to get pregnant at 16 and live off of the state for the rest of their lives rather than struggle to make their own living. With nearly ¾ of the community living on the dole, boredom appears to rule and any sense of purpose or meaning is completely missing here. Even tonight, as we drove home at around ten, people were wandering the streets aimlessly, we passed a sign on fire, kids on their bikes. All looking for something to do, something to be a part of, something that is painfully lacking.
I don’t want to be trite, and I don’t want to be presumptuous. I wonder what makes me think I can prance into a community that is one of the most depressed, psychologically and economically, in Northern Ireland with the supposed purpose of bringing hope here. It is easy for me to talk about hope: when I go home, I have options. I probably have more education ahead of me, jobs that capture my interest, nice housing. A lot of these kids can’t see past their few blocks. Who am I to tell them, guys, you can do better than this! What do I know about growing up in a place where college is never mentioned, where boredom rules, where paramilitaries run the show because they are the only groups that give people a sense of worth, a sense of purpose, and activities to occupy their time? But then I thought back to high school, when I got to spend time with families in Mexico who were overflowing with love and generosity despite abject poverty, and how I was struck by the humble and heavy reliance on family connections and their faith, which allowed them to see past their current situation and focus on the long-term. I still think that economic viability is strongly connected with identity, but I am learning to separate the two, and my memories of Ensenada have really helped me with that.
Yesterday also got me thinking about my own motives. It is one thing to live in the rough area for a one year stint. Malia and I thought, if Christ were wandering around Northern Ireland today, he’d be living in Ballysillan and hanging out with the people no one else wanted to be with. But how brave would we be to humble ourselves at home, in our own element? Would Christ be living at Greenlake, or would he put himself on Aurora or the South Side? I would never dream of voluntarily moving to one of those places, but somehow when it’s not your real life, it’s easier.
I am reading Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton, and he mentions Joan of Arc, saying “She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt… She was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild spectators who do nothing… She and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost.” Sometimes I think I’m further behind on that idea than anyone. I have a long way to go with learning discipline, learning about a more pure love, and uncovering a lot of my own pride.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Terrorists Owe Me a MAC Lipgloss

Chicago nabbed me. Well, last weekend did altogether. After missing two flights and barely making the third from SeaTac to Chicago, I wanted to skip the whole vacation thing altogether and instead just kick the terrorists in the balls. But all the logged airport time was forgotten when I finally made it into Brent’s couch on wheels and realized why I thought it was worth the trip in the first place. That night he toured me through his hometown, showed me where he had learned to ride a bike and drive a car, where he spent his high school Saturday nights, reminded me of his unique dancing and vocal abilities… and I remembered how hard it is for me to not pee my pants when we’re hanging out.
So if Brent ever wanted to write a book on his car knowledge, people would probably buy it. Friday we hit the Volo Museum, which was pure education for me, even if my favorite car was still the one from Wayne’s World. That night his coworkers were taking him out for a goodbye dinner at a new Mexican place, so we hit the costume shop and showed up to dinner with sombreros. Again, seeing the middle-aged top lawyer forced into Mexican headwear against his will and probably enjoying it way more than he’d let on was classic. Not sure what they’re going to do without Brent… he brings a lot to the table.
Saturday involved bikes and booze: absolutely gorgeous weather, and we hopped on bikes and rode down the Loop, onto Navy Pier, and out by the Shedd Aquarium. Finished the night with perfection: polished off two bottles of wine at Penny’s, a BYOB Thai place, and rode our bikes home. And by rode, I mean, Brent made friends with everyone we passed while I lagged behind yelling DANGER! When I thought he was frolicking too wildly.
Sunday we accidentally slept waayy in and only had time for the Field Museum. Heaven. Discovered we both have unrealized childhood dreams of being paleontologists. What are the odds? Met Kimberly, Mike and his parents for dinner and found out where he gets his personality and why he gets quieter at home: Herb was meant to be a standup comedian, and Sandy can discuss why Elvis couldn’t lead a normal life (defending his drug addiction, I suspect) until the cows come home. I simultaneously pitied him for having to keep up with them and envied him for having free entertainment whenever he wants. Candace blazed in later and we drank wine and danced in her living room until about 3.
Monday Candace and I powered through minor hangovers and I went downtown with her when she went to work. I spent the morning gazing at all the gorgeous buildings, seeking out the Monets, Renoirs, Dalís and Van Goghs at the Art Institute, and generally enjoying alone time downtown (“alone time? Like without Brent? Well that sounds weird.”- Dad).
When we met up again, he loaded my stuff into his perfectly polished Oldsmobile (his baby for sure), looked over at me and asked, “Are you scared?” And the lump in my throat got a little bigger as I answered YES! I hated to leave. I spent an hour or two walking around O’Hare with wet eyelashes until I pulled myself together again.
I loved just about everything about Chicago, from the fact that it’s a beer-drinking city, to the fact that people still stick with the Cubs when they’re losing, to the fact that I had an awesome host to enjoy it with. The whole weekend was perfect and a great last US vacation.

Bye, USA, Hello UK!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

No Me Comas, Te Amo! : Alicante, Nov. 2005

So it's been another month and I will sum up what's been going on:
Nights are usually pretty interesting, but one of my favorites was when we went out for my friend Brent’s birthday and somehow ended up at a botellon with half of Latin America. Botellons are Spaniards’ favorite tradition, after bullfighting that is, and are basically a bunch of people drinking together somewhere in public. In Alicante they are usually near the beach or on the side of the mountain, where hundreds of high schoolers through 30-year-olds get together and basically demolish this entire street. Overall it is a really accepted part of Spanish culture and as long as you aren’t playing music extremely loudly in residential areas past 4am, the Policia don’t care. We were minding our own business in the Barrio and all of a sudden there I was, salsa dancing with some Ecuadorian in a back alley. The night could only topped by the Halloween party my roommates and I had a couple weeks later, which could accurately be described as a mini-meeting of the UN, minus all the serious discussion.
The botellon night also included the discovery of the Spanish boyfriend Carlos, a little gem of a boy who doesn’t smoke, drink, or really have any vices whatsoever. I was pretty excited when I survived my first date conducted entirely in Spanish (even managing to get in a discussion on Spanish vs. US immigration policy… in the words of Shauna Sperry, ‘not to toot my own horn but TOOT TOOT!’); however, Carlos thinks it appropriate to send me texts that include poetic references to stopping time, keeping memories in his heart forever, etc. The first time this happened, I used my most polite Spanish vocab to explain that a Shakespearean sonnet was better suited to a Golden Anniversary than a coffee date. Now he has toned them down to saying things like, “the time change is tonight, that means we have one more hour to be together.” I am chalking this up to cultural differences and getting excited to come back to the States wherethe guys act like they don’t care.
But the Spaniard who brings the most joy to my heart is my intercambio partner Vicente (described my roommates as having “an endearing rabid-dog quality about him”). Vicente likes to go on adventures so a few weeks ago we went to this park across the street from the university because they have giant ducks that are UA legends. Apparently the rumor is that the ducks eat meat, because there has to be some reason they are so freaking big. I was like, ok ok, I'm sure they're decent sized ducks. Well, we went over to the lake and I almost crapped myself... these ducks are literally the size of a golden retriever. Vicente was like, hey, go ahead and show them your hand, it's fine! I was like, get me the hell away from those ducks!! Is there a nuclear plant around here somewhere? So I am trying to muster up the courage to go back and take pictures to prove the freakiness of it all. Another highlight of the last month was getting compared to the pig face that I got tricked into eating by a 60 year old man at the market. Luckily he meant itin a complimentary way (the word for beautiful and the word for delicious are the same, but I tell you… getting compared to a hairy snout is kind of iffy).
Well I love you all and I hope that this included enough use of the word“Spaniard” for those of you who requested to hear it more often. You guys are the gems in the crown of life. I just blacked out and tried to make up a profound statement, but you get the idea. Os echo de menos, nos vemos pronto!

Un Buen Rollo: Alicante, Oct. 2005

Hey lovers,
Well, it is has been a month and a half since I began my torrid love affair with Spain. If we are being completely honest, it is more like a warm friendship, but you know, poetic license and everything. Sorry I haven’t written something sooner, but I have been really busy listening to Shakira and watching trashy Spanish Love Connection shows. So getting here was basically the scariest thing I have ever experienced. I hung out in London for a night with a bunch of Australians from my hostel, but that was the only good part, because I learned firsthand the hell that is RyanAir getting from London to Alicante. For brevity’s sake, I will put the highlights in bullet form:
• Learned mid-flight that Murcia, the city we were landing in, was nowhere near Alicante, and had no bus system or train from the airport, which is an abandoned airforce base. Further learned that RyanAir has been sued a number of times for misleading the public about its destinations.
• Met a Spanish guy on the walk in from the flight, who proceeded to dismantle his bike and cram all my luggage into his brother’s car, drop me off downtown and help me find a hostel. Yes, I realize it could have been an Unsolved Mysteries kind of thing, but I was pretty desperate.
• Spent a day braving the elements between the time I got kicked out of my hostel and when I could move into my apartment (which, until the day after I got here, had a landlord with a disconnected number, ie. possibly didn't exist), during which creepy Spanish men invited me back to their places without understanding the phrase HELL NO (I thought it translated fairly directly, I was wrong).
So the university here is gorgeous; I have to frolic through palm trees to get to class. My profesoras are hilarious, and we spend most of the class time discussing important things, like how European toilets are better than American toilets and how obnoxious Spaniards are. One of my profs is from Spain but takes every opportunity to make fun of it; she also teaches us the crucial phrases (Tengo ni puta idea= I have no f-ing idea). That one comes in handy frequently. The best thing about my class is the Japanese boys in it who are so lost, but when I mentioned Seattle one of them was like, “OH! ICHIRO!” Yeah buddy! We’re on the map!
One of my favorite things here is the market every Saturday, which has TONS of clothes, shoes, fruit and veggies, etc. They have huge barrels of a million kinds of olives, pickles, every kind of nut possible, and other random foods that you could never find at home. Everything is so yummy and so cheap, and I can eat kiwi and avocado and almonds all day long. My apartment is amazing, it is one block from the beach and is right in the middle of the Barrio, the area with all the bars and clubs and restaurants. Nothing starts until midnight here, so people eat dinner at about 11, go to the bars from 12-3, and then head to El Puerto, this peninsula on the water that has about 10 clubs in a 3 block radius, until like 6 or 7 am. There are literally thousands of people from all over the world crammed in the Barrio and Puerto on any given night, so it is an awesome place to live. I have one Finnish roommate, two Irish, one Canadian and one British lady who never leaves her room. I love having the Irish girls around so I can finally use the phrase “that’s good craic” again, and Eija, the Finnish girl, is my best friend in Spain. Most of our time is spent drinking sangria, figuring out how to get Europe to take a shower, and wondering what food we just ordered when we go out. We have a pretty interesting group of friends… including Lebo, a Botswanan girl studying in Canada; Angelo, an Italian guy who doesn’t speak English OR Spanish but seems to always show up no matter where we are; Ariel, an ex-pro soccer player from Argentina who is dying to learn English and tells me I get more beautiful every time he sees me (who WOULDN’T be friends with a guy like that?); Andrea, an Italian guy studying in Sweden who wants to marry me for Green Card purposes only; Nelson, a Lenny Kravitz lookalike from Brazil; and Randy, an MBA from Houston who owns a promotions company in Alicante and knows every bartender in the province, ie. I haven’t paid for a drink since I got here.
So I was kind of starting to freak out because I kept seeing all these adorable little Spanish kids and couldn’t hang out with any of them, so I found a job working with these two AMAZING little boys from Muchamiel (the little town about40 minutes out of Alicante). Javier is 7 and Fernando is 5, and I think they are karma payback for putting up with the little punks I nannied this summer, because they could not be more perfect. Pilar, their mom, wants me to speak English with them and just hang out at the park and read and play. Humbling Spain Moment #578: the 7 year old I tutor speaks better English than I do and translates when his mom and I can’t figure out what we are trying to say to each other (she doesn’t speak any English, and is just about the sweetest thing ever). I call them my little Guapisimos and get to hang out with them every day. It is especially cool to get out of the city and into a little town that is, in my humble opinion, real Spain. Pilar grew up there, the boys’grandparents live just around the corner, and she has friends from childhood all over the place and has never left or lived anywhere else.
So despite being broker than one of Schlossmo’s appendages after a night out, I have been able to travel a little too. Sometimes we just hop on the train and see where it ends up and have adventures in a random city on the coast, but we also spent a weekend in Valencia and a couple days in Granada. Valencia is amazing, we got a map and just spent the weekend running around and looking at as many museums, cathedrals, and parks as humanly possible. We are going to try to head back in a couple weeks for a UEFA Champions League game and a bullfight. Granada was quite possible the most wonderful city I have seen since leaving home, and I got to spend some time with Haley Beach (for those of you who don’t know, she’s my long-time lover and is studying in Granada). It physically pained me to leave that place, but at least Alicante is warm.
Ok I am willing to bet that half of you aren’t even reading this anymore, but I am going to throw in a bonus story about Juan, the owner of the hostel I was in the first few days. Juan is a crazy old guy from Murcia who doesn’t know a word of English, and I decided I loved him, and went to his place to say hi. He was eating dinner, and told me to sit down and ran into his kitchen. A few minutes later he plopped a plate in front of me with a fish on it. A whole fish, with just its head chopped off. And a piece of bread with hard cheese, a bowl ofvegetables in vinegar, and a bottle of Spanish wine. I wasn’t sure what protocol is with eating whole fish, and asked him how to start, and he was like,“ehh, eat it however you want.” Then he poured me a glass of wine into a cup that had obviously been used, as it had some interesting backwash in it, but who am I to be rude? But every time he left the room I poured some of it back into the bottle or into his glass. The problem with this was that every time he noticed I had an empty glass, he refilled it and made a toast. As sneaky as I tried to be, my host was a step ahead of me. So Juan was starting to get a bit looped, and kept talking and talking and talking… for an hour and a half. Hecovered a number of topics during his monologue, including Hurricane Katrina, religion, sex, and his illustrious career as a ¬¬___ (fill in the blank. I’m still not sure what he did, but I have a feeling it was the Mafia, based on thenumerous pictures of him with random men and copious amounts of wine. Oh wait, that just means he’s Spanish). I could tell when he was done with one topic and moving on to another when he would pause and give me the hugest, goofiest smileI have ever seen, which made me laugh, and then made him laugh, and now Juan andI are best friends, and every time I peek my head in to say hi he says, “Heyyy, it’s the model from Madrid!” This nickname indicates to me that Juan is drunk ALL THE TIME, but he sure made life interesting my first few days in Alicante.
Love you guys, miss you so much
PS. Though my stance is still firmly anti-European boy, I saw firsthand how weaker souls might fall for their charms when this Parisian waiter at Havana pulled my tank top strap down with his teeth and kissed my shoulder… how do you react to such a situation when you are a naïve American girl, is my question to you?!?