Woohoo, the DIY is over, the paint has dried, the paper is still on the wlls (just) and the house is ready to sell. Given the news this week selling it may be the hardest part.
With the house done, I junped at the chance to visit an old Slovene amigo in one of the few cornes of Europe I haven’t been to – Northern Ireland. Rightly or wrongly (and I’ve been challenged on this many times) I didn’t include NI as a European country as, strictly speaking it’s part of the UK. However, free from the constraints of my previous bet, the offer of a free bed and a home-made lasagne was too much to resist and last weekend I hoped accross the channel to Belfast.
Arriving in Belfast was weird. I’m old enough to know better and i’m fully aware that the situation in Belfast is nothing like it was a few years ago but I couldn’t help feeling a little nervous. The sort of feeling I’ve had sitting on a bus or train on route to somewhere your friends, hosts and newspapers say you shouldn’t be going. I suppose it’s understandable given that the only images I’ve ever seen of NI are the marches, the military patrols, the militia painted houses and the bomb blasts of the long running war with us, the British. However, I’m happy to report that, just like each previous journey – the nerves had no reason to get excited. Belfast was a friendly, relaxed, pretty and fun place to spend the weekend. Obviously, there’s a history here but Belfast today is not the Belfast I know from the telly.
The buildings are proud, people are talkative, there’s a little big wheel and most unbelievebly – the weather was good! Even Henry Hippo’s made a return …whoever he is. Something like the NatWest piggy I think.
It was only two days but, we managed to squeeze in a whole day exploring Belfast and (thanks to a £5 all day train ticket) a trip to Antrim and Lough Neagh (pronounced Lock Ney). I’m not sure what’s going on with Lough Neagh though – sailing a boat on it appears to be a big ‘no no’. We even had a go on the telescope but couldn’t find a single one. Maybe there’s a local custom that forbits paddling on Sundays.
Naturally, I also squeezed in an Irish Stew, a few pints of Guiness and an hour or two watching sport in a pub. I also put Mini-Mojca (my camera) to good use and in good ‘touron’ tradition – photographed almost everything I saw. As well as being Slovene in a previous life, I’m also starting to think I might be 23% Japanese. Marica (who I met in Lj 3 years ago) isn’t such a fan of Belfast but, she looked after me and we had a fun weekend. She didn’t join me in the Guiness drinking though as apparently she’s ‘tea turtle’.
Pictures of the Irish Adventure are here
I’m unsure how this book escaped my attention until now but, Marica introduced me to a book called ‘In Europe’. I only had to read the back page to know that I needed to read this book so I grabbed a copy whilst I was there and, although I’ve only read the first chapter I’m already hooked. I’m a embarressed to admit this but, for various reasons the prologue almost (I said almost) had me in tears. I think it just reminded me of too many people and places.
While we’ve both made a similar journey through Europe, Geert Mak clearly had a much bigger agenda, a far keener eye, and a knowlege of history that I could only dream of. However, many of the characters he describes are so familiar.
I especially like the following which describes an evening in a cafe in a small Hungarian village. The wise man puts Michael Palin to shame.
In the cafe they asked my friend what it means, this ‘new Europe’.
After the Gypsy on the shrieking accordion had been silenced, he explained that, in the course of history, this part of Europe had become invreasingly poor, that everyone looked up to wealthy and powerful Western Europe, and that it was only natural that they should now want to be a part of it.
But first, my wise friend told them, you will have to go through a deep valley of even greater poverty, so that in the ten years that follow you may perhaps be able to climb up to the subsistence level of the West. ‘And what’s more, you’re going to loose some very precious things: friendship, the ability to get by without a lot of money, the skills to repair things that are broken, the freedom to rasie your own pigs and slaughter them as you see fit, the freedom to burn as much timber as you like… any number of other things’.
‘What?’ they asked him. ‘No more slaughtering our own pigs? No more burning wood?’ They looked at him in disbelief. At the time they did not know that, before long they wouldn’t be allowed to smoke in the cafe either.
I got a late night text message from co-driver Pete on Sunday explaining that he’d found us a car. An old Rover with 12 months MOT for £200. Despite my initial objections and reluctance to make plans/commit to anything, Pete twisted my arm and I waved him off £200 later in our new (ok old) Rover 214 banger. Complete with electric windows, sunroof, airbag, abs breaks, damaged rear door and stunning fake wood interior – ‘the dog’ is now responsible for getting us 2000 miles to St Petersburg.
Finally, I promised Silvia I would “say something very bad … about our “new” PM..and about us, stupid or poor italians”. Yes, the Italians have voted media mogul Silvio Berlusconi back into power. However, I think I’ll leave Mr B to say the bad things: 1, 2, 3… I can only sympathise with Silvia et al who are going to have to put up with it for the next five years. The BBC’s man in europe, Mark Mardell takes a look at the political playground in Italy here.