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.

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