Friday, March 30, 2007

My Mates! My Neeborhood!

Wow! So this is what successful cross-community work really looks like: land in a spaceship into West Belfast, discover people with Scottish accents, stop a petrol bomb with your ring, deactivate a nuclear bomb and help a "Catlik" and a "Prod" go into business together. It's so simple, I don't know why we haven't thought of it sooner! I'm gonna go find me Sean O'Reilly.

Oops, I gave away the ending. Captain Planet was a baller. You have to watch this. It's a cinematic masterpiece.


With the political situation in Northern Ireland being what it is, I seem to have been listening to a lot of people spout off lately with their thoughts on politics. This invariably leads to the big question of history: can we get past the history that colors so much of Northern Irish culture and spills into so many corners of life and society? I love this topic; and it's a huge part of what brought me back here in the first place. I didn't feel like I was done with Belfast in 2004 because I'd only scratched the surface of the complexities this place holds. So I came back to ask questions and listen to the answers, to study the polarities between the ends of Belfast, to watch historic politics unfolding in person. I love hearing people's thoughts on Belfast, and I love daydreaming with them about how to help pull it out of the history that drags it down.

But, in the words of Peter Griffin, it really grinds my gears when people who have no clue about what life outside middle-class Belfast is actually like seem to think that they're experts in the social situation all over the country.

For the people who claim to have a lockdown on the Belfast social situation and have never ventured into so much as Sandy Row, for those who think the Troubles are long dead and that society has achieved a peaceful equilibrium, and for those who prefer to talk a lot rather than listen: Belfast's Troubles are technically over, but their legacy refuses to die. Paramilitaries are still around, riots are still cropping up, gun violence hasn't ended, teenage pregnancies are still the highest in Europe, broken families are still the norm, and the suicide rates are still enough to make any jaw drop. Catholics and Protestants are still on edge in each other's neighborhoods, and many wouldn't be caught dead in "their" territory. Peace walls are still the fragile buffers that seem to be multiplying overnight. In many parts, the economy is still struggling back onto its feet. Of course it's not as bad as it was ten, twenty or thirty years ago. But the impact is still real.

I'm not trying to make these communities sound like cultural wastelands, because they aren't. But I also don't believe in sugar-coating them just because others don't see what actually goes on here. I don't claim to be extremely well-versed on Belfast, but eight months of living on the edge of the northwest end of the city, in one of the most divided and deprived areas of the entire country, has opened my eyes and put a passion into my heart for an area that has largely been forgotten. Many people's view isn't holistic, and it really bothers me. Ignorant chatter is irritating coming from Northern Irish people, and even more irritating coming from people who have lived here for less than a year and don't have a clue about what the situation actually looks like. It's like if I were to go on a rampage about how racism is dead on the US west coast. Just because I haven't ever seen it myself doesn't mean it isn't a reality for so many people. I have really learned to not say much when I don't know much about something, because I'd rather not speak until I think my words are more worthwhile than blabber.
We all want to be heard, and we all want to be the expert, but there are a lot of people who I just want to say, "SHUT UP, and just look around you for a minute before you keep talking!"

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Hawthorne Effect

There is a spot right outside the music hall in downtown Belfast that is never without a homeless person sitting outside it. Whoever it may be, their hat or cup is an ever-present reminder for passerby that not everyone is safely tucked into a Housing Executive place and that even in a welfare society, poverty is ever-present. The hats and cups frequently get kicked over and some laugh at the scramble for scattered coins, inspiring an unattractive sense of pity in onlookers.

Scott and Jamie are two boys who drift in and out of Youth Fellowship, depending on whether or not we let the gang of Shankill footballers in or not. Like most of our kids, a full week in school is a victory, a week without fighting is a phenomenon. Scott, at 14, makes a weekly trip to a local bar with £20 to pay off a paramilitary so they won't break his stepdad's knees again. Jamie's dad died suddenly last month and he is still in shock. They smoke, they fight, they don't really know how to handle everything that's been thrown at them in their short lives.

I love these boys with all of my heart. The three of us spent Saturday night dodging wasted twelve-year-olds in city center and hoping no one would recognize the boys as Prod (Happy St. Patrick's Day from Northern Ireland, where few holidays can be celebrated without sectarianism. St. Patty's is the Catholic's turn for control of downtown, July 12th is for Protestants, and stepping on each other's toes is still a no-no). After spending a few hours at Fisherwick's St. Patrick's Day celebration, where the boys got on like a house on fire with the interns, we headed back to catch the last bus. As we approached the music hall, I wondered how the boys would react to the homeless man. We had already had a fairly in depth discussion about the massive amounts of Eastern European immigrants in Belfast, many of whom sell a magazine in a setup much like Seattle's "Real Change" program. The boys were annoyed that they couldn't walk a single block without getting harassed to buy the magazine, relating a story of how they had blown off a Romanian woman, loudly and harshly, as she approached them to sell a copy. So as we neared the hall, I began to get nervous that something would happen between them and the homeless guy, who was picking up 10p coins out of the cracks in the wet sidewalk.

But without appearing to think twice, the boys were filled with compassion for the man. "It got tipped," Jamie murmured. "Someone kicked it." He knelt down to help refill the man's overturned cup. Scott gave him a pound and shook his hand. These boys have hardly a cent to their name, and my mind flashed back to a few weeks ago, when my dad was here. When we dropped Scott off after YF, he had gotten out of the car to shake his hand and look him in the eye. Scott wasn't sure how to react at the time, as there had probably never been a incident in recent history when someone had made the effort to do that. And here he was, imitating the same maneuver with someone else.

The Hawthorne Effect states that everything changes as soon as it is observed. I'm not so naive to think that the boys weren't, at least in part, trying to act in the way they knew I'd want them to. But I also know that words and observation have the power of self-fulfillment, and that when kids who have hardly ever been encouraged learn that they are being watched with eyes that see the best in them, they will live up to such an image. The Effect works both ways, and it kills me to see how many kids around here are living up to the negative pictures of themselves that others have painted for them.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

"Hey, Yoya!"

Between blizzards, a team of raucous Americans that's invaded wee Belfast, yet another arson, Marlo moving here this week and riots in Ardoyne, there's a lot I want to talk about right now, but I will save it for a time when I have more than a couple of minutes to sit still. But I can't let another day pass without mentioning BAILIE.
Bailie is three years old, extremely talkative in that unintelligibly endearing way, and the new apple of my eye. He can't say most of his letters, so I am now "Yoya," and my job is apparently to help him climb onto anything that is higher than his head. Occasionally, I'll feel a tiny arm wrap itself around my shoulders and turn to be greeted with a tiny kiss, right on the lips. It's always the adorable kind of three-year-old kiss where they just kind of put their mouth there and don't move their lips at all, and it's always followed up with a small hug and his head resting on my shoulder for a few moments, before he goes back to playing in the sandbox.
Bailie kissing me probably breaks about a million child-protection laws, and all I ever want to do is grab his cute little face and kiss his forehead and cheeks and nose, but I can't because he's not mine and that might be kind of scary.
But I am thinking of legally changing my name to Yoya, anyway.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Addams Family Values

Does anyone else remember that movie, or is it just me? And whatever happened to Christina Ricci, anyway?

February and its plethora of visitors came to a close with the big visit from DEAR OLD DAD, which I'd been looking forward to despite my doubts that it would actually happen at all, considering his reluctance to fly and tendencies to carry a Rick Steves travel belt (paging Lauren Johnson... paging Lauren Johnson, you have a travel belt compatriot). But miracle of miracles, he did make it across the pond!

Planning for a road trip, we hired a car as soon as he landed, and naturally checked the "full-insurance" option since the left side of the road is a bit dicey. So we're informed that EVERYTHING on the car is insured, and there is basically nothing we could do that wouldn't be covered (including killing a person, which I thought was a bit morbid for the girl to mention), EXCEPT the tires. And not half an hour later, we bounce off a curb on the passenger side and lose a hubcap to the mean streets of the Dublin suburbs. I could not stop laughing about that. We could have done a hit and run and not paid a thing, but the hubcap we lost? Not covered.

So Dale was harshly introduced to the natural wonder of West Belfast as we drove home from Dublin in the rain and dark. I think the graffitti and barbed wire were a shock to the system, but he felt a bit better after meeting the trillion amazing people this city is housing. After a few days of craic with the Belfast crew, we hit the road and thus began EIRE ROAD TRIP 2007.
The trip can be boiled down to the following: the two of us tucked into a little Toyota Yaris, tooling down Irish backroads while listening to Gaelic radio and getting into heated discussions concerning Sinn Fein (maybe not the last part so much). We made a full loop, from the Giant's Causeway and north coast to Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford, and back to Dublin. We ate Irish breakfasts and read our books and took pictures of ourselves mocking ancient monuments. Beautiful.

We spent our last day in Dublin and I put him on the airport shuttle at 6 on Saturday morning, which sucked because the huge calendar that said FIVE MONTHS TO GO was overshadowing everything we said. For a lot of people five months isn't really that long, but for my family it's a lifetime. Of course I was really sad to see him go, so to distract myself I decided to maximize the six hours I had left in our posh hotel room. I took a shower and put on the fancy hotel robe (feeling a lot like Bridget Fonda in 'It Could Happen to You,' except, thank God, Nicolas Cage wasn't in my bed when I woke up) and wandered around the room pretending i was really rich and swank.

Then I ordered room service.

If there is anything in the world that is designed purely to make you feel like a million bucks (or euro, as the case may be), it is room service. You pick up the phone, say what you want, and a tuxedoed man brings it to you. Phenomenal. They didn't have breakfast stuff, so I did what any self-respecting health nut who was taught to never skip breakfast would do: i ordered dessert. And I ate apple crumble (or, as said tuxedoed man defined it, "apple crum-BLAY"... seriously, guy? Let's not grasp at glamour straws here) and had the best cup of coffee ever while i watched planes taking off and landing right outside my window.

A few short hours later, I climbed onto a hot, cramped bus that had a slight stench of BO and headed back to Belfast. Dream over. The transition back to reality was tempered slightly by an extensive conversation with a British professor and Romanian doctoral candidate in chemistry, which covered topics varied enough to distract me from impending doom and included killing the bus driver, the new trend of happiness studies, and how to punish violent criminals. The former and the latter were entirely unrelated.

So I had been maintaining a fairly steady pattern of not thinking about home much until Dad informed me that "it's not natural" for people to leave home for so long, thus inflicting a spiral of guilt that has gotten me on track again to thinking about the lovely PNW (kidding, Dad. Kind of.). Despite this fulfillment of the parental duty of guilt, spending time with my Dad for the first time in six months reminded me again that he is absolutely the kindest, most big-hearted man I have ever met. I miss my family, let's be honest!