A Family Trip to Belfast causing ‘Troubles’05/01/2020
As we enter Belfast I notice parts of the peace wall beside the motorway leading into the city centre. It is a massive concrete barrier with an iron fence along the top. I feel intimidated just driving by, well aware of its literally troubling history. If you didn’t know any better you could easily take it for the fencing of an industrial estate.
It is hard to believe that this eight metre high construct still separates the unionist and nationalist quarters with its gates being locked in the evening time. On one side lies Shankill Road, the Protestant Quarter, whereas Falls Road is dominated by the Catholic community.
Belfast – Two Worlds
It is around noon when we drive through buzzing downtown Belfast. The streets are decorated with Christmas lights and signs wishing everybody a Happy Christmas. People are hustling through the streets looking for the last Christmas presents. I am surprised everybody is so done up. I wonder whether they are on their way to a Christmas Party or „leftovers“ from the night before which would be even more surprising considering their pristine looks. There is a good vibe coming of the crowd. The atmosphere is festive with decorations and seasonal ornaments everywhere you look. A young street band is playing rather non-Christmassy rock songs, but is generously rewarded by onlookers swaying to the beat in the crisp air. Nothing suggests that the Northern Irish capital had been the centre of the Troubles until the late 90’s when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
Not quite there yet
We are circling the City Hall in search of a parking space. To me it is the most impressive building in Belfast. It is probably the most popular photo on Christmas cards too. With its lights at night time the Baroque Revival façade looks like a palace. That is the bit I am looking forward to the most: The Christmas Market on the town hall square amidst the perfect Christmas setting. I have already caught a glimpse of the colourful stalls as we were passing by.
On the very top of a packed car park we eventually find a space just big enough for our car. Almost as time-consuming as finding that spot is getting out of the car with a toddler and a baby. Whilst „team boys“ is up and running within minutes thanks to my husband, I am still dealing with an uber-full nappy on the baby front. I end up doing a complete outfit change with missy rolling around and getting pee all over the passenger seat. Luckily I am well prepared today and didn’t forget half the content of the baby bag like the last time.
The Disappointment of the Day
When „team girls“ is finally also ready, the boys already come back from a short look-around in search of a toilet. There they have made a rather disappointing discovery. The reason we came to Belfast, the lovely Christmas Market, had closed the day before. It is 23rd December and they are just about to take down the stalls with other upset visitors being left outside the gates. When planning our trip it didn’t occur to us in the slightest that the Christmas Market might finish up a day before Christmas Eve.
Plan B: Child-friendly Sightseeing
Anyway, the weather is nice so we take a stroll down to the Waterfront. Water is always the go-to place with our kids. On the way we pass the Albert Clock and the Big Fish. I am a terrible tour guide, but remember most of the sites from my work with Irish tour operators. In my head I classified these two as quite child-friendly. But neither the tilted clock tower nor the oversized stone fish gets much attention from our 2-year old. If it was for him he would be throwing stones into the water all day long. What impresses him though is a guy in a blow-up Santa Claus suit flying by on his skateboard smoking pot. Well, he leaves us all open-mouthed albeit for different reasons.
We aim for St. George’s Market. At least it has food. After water the second thing that our hungry caterpillar is usually fond of. But guess what, even the popular Victorian indoor market is closed. Apparently people from Belfast are not big into markets this time of the year.
Back in the shopping district we start looking for a family-friendly restaurant. For us that means above all spaciousness. No point in being cramped into a fancy gourmet place with a buggy and an agile toddler. Our choice falls onto the Bullitt Hotel off Victoria Street. Even though we have to wait ages for our food (not so family-friendly from this point of view), our eldest is absolutely amazing. I am always so proud when he plays with his toys instead of staring at some sort of screen like some of his peers.
Only Problems and no Solution
After we eventually had our dinner and are ready to leave I feel a strange warmth on my knee while dressing the little one. Instantly a million thoughts rush through my head. The nappy is leaking. We have to change her out of the wet clothes. She is already wearing her spare outfit. It is too cold to only wrap her in a blanket and bring her outside. The other outfit might have dried by now but I left it on the dashboard in the car…Whilst I am coming up with lots of problems and no solutions, my husband John already jumps up to run out and buy her a new outfit. Of course I had thought about that too, but discarded it straight away. I have an obsession with washing clothes before putting them on. Due to the lack of alternatives it was the only sensible thing to do though.
Super Daddy to the Rescue
For about 20 minutes with a soaking baby in my arms and a luckily still calm toddler I am impatiently waiting for John’s return. I am glad he went out to get a change of clothes. I couldn’t have handled the time pressure and would have probably rushed into different places to find the perfect outfit at the best available price. Super daddy on the other hand confidently walked into a baby store, picked out a onesie in the right size that coincidentally colour-matched her cardigan and even was on sale.
Relieved I start stripping her down as I see John walking into the door. Rummaging around in the bag for the nappies it strikes me like a lightning bold. I left them in the car too. Super daddy has to ‘fly’ out again and get nappies. He charms his way to the top of the supermarket queue and again is back in no time.
The Journey is the Destination
When we finally leave the restaurant it is dark outside. Fortunately we didn’t have an agenda for our day in Belfast apart from the closed Christmas market. So we are not too upset about it. All I wanted was to enjoy the Christmassy atmosphere. We get to do that now. The whole city is shining bright with Christmas decorations as we walk around the busy Victoria Square.
I have a little flashback remembering the last times I had been to Belfast. The first time was with a good friend of mine. We were both students, staying in a hostel and keen on discovering all the political sites such as the murals, graveyards and infamous areas of the troubles on a black cab tour. The next couple of times I had been to Belfast on business. On behalf of a German tour operator that I occasionally still work for I got to visit Titanic Belfast after it had just opened. I had dined in the City Hall, stayed at fancy hotels and went on pub crawls including the iconic Crown Liquor Saloon. I had even been to St. George’s Market attending a trade show there about 3 years ago. Hence I have pretty much seen the touristy side of Belfast.
Today it isn’t about visiting places or ticking boxes. It doesn’t matter if we are in Belfast, Dublin or any other city. Today all that matters is having a good time with the family. The plan was to have no plans and just go with the flow. In this regard it has been a successful day even though it was different than expected.
An Imperfect Happy End
On the way home we get lost when leaving the motorway in search of a service station. It wouldn’t be a day trip with the Paynes without getting lost. Mostly during the attempt of locating a place to eat. Me breastfeeding the little one in the passenger seat, big brother slightly grumpy in the back seat (rightly so!) and my husband beside me figuring out the GPS we strand on a dark country road. However we make up for the detour shortly afterwards as we pull into the service station where we had already stopped in the morning. It has a spacious soft-play area where our 2-year old gets another go despite already wearing his PJs. If it was for him we could have skipped Belfast altogether and just stayed here all day. His laughter when going down the slide fills the meanwhile empty food hall. The ending of a perfect family day!