Sunshine splashed through the window onto the table and empty seats in front of me. The rest of the train was full of babbling, cheerful, Irish families and business men (someone tell me, are the Irish ever NOT cheerful?) on their way to Belfast or the surrounding area. But, in my empty corner at the back of the train, I just sat and listened to the melody of their lovely voices as they harmonized with the rick-rick-rick-shrug of the wheels winding along steel tracks.
I love trains.
Our route took us up the coast. Fishing boats and silver bays slid past in the blur of the early morning. As we got closer to Belfast, the coast disappeared and was replaced with winter’s pale fields and shaggy mountain foothills. Snow lay in patches around the farmyards that stayed for a second in view before rushing past with the rest of the world.
It really did seem like the world was rushing past. Hadn’t it been just yesterday that I was on a train running from Madrid to Toledo? Nope, that was a year ago. A year ago that I met Mr. M and his daughter, Victoria, at a church in Alcorcón, who I was now on my way to visit. They attend a Free Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland and I’ve learned nothing from Dad if not the importance of finding a place to worship on Sunday when travelling.
So it was Belfast or bust on that chilly Saturday morning to find a family I’d only met once, in a city I’ve never been to, after (basically) inviting myself to stay with them. Naturally, I was feeling slightly apprehensive about the whole visit. On top of this, I had an awful sore throat and an empty stomach. I sucked on throat lozenges and took a deep breath.
Ever had that feeling like everything you’re worried about – everything from “Will I know which station I’m supposed to get off at in Belfast?” to “Where am I going to be in six months? What happens after this chapter ends?” – sits across your shoulders like an unfriendly cat, reminding you that you’re not in control, you don’t have the answers? It’s a heavy cat.
My phone battery was walking down the long tunnel towards the light, but I managed to pull up my texts when I got to Belfast Central Station. Victoria had sent me a message: she and her father were sick and would be unable to pick me up – they were sending Mrs. M instead.
The feeling of guilt surged up through my stomach, reminding me that I had imposed myself upon this unsuspecting family – hosting an American, let alone this particular one, can be quite a task.
Mrs. M wouldn’t be able to get me for another hour, so I strapped my rucksack onto my back and began down the bleak streets of Belfast. I knew some of its history – “the troubles.” But I was not prepared for how different this city would feel from Dublin or Cork. The energy, the flow, even the cops. Belfast is like the Wild West of Ireland. You can feel the carefully coiffed sense of peace and order. You can practically see the tumbleweed blowing through the deserted (compared to Dublin) streets.
But the buildings were beautiful and the sky was clear with low mountains looming behind the city limits, so I walked as long as my rucksack would allow me. When strength started to fade and time became sparse, I started back towards the train station to wait for Mrs. M.
By chance, I stopped in St. George’s Market. Really – because all my best adventures are total accidents – I had merely hoped it would be a short cut to the road on the other side. The indoor market in Cork had been nice enough, so I trooped in, lopping people on either side of me with my person-sized backpack every time I turned.
St. George’s Market happens to be a wonderland. As soon as I stepped inside I was enveloped in the cozy warmth of a bustling exposition. A live band played beneath a slanting ceiling framed with faded-green beams. On either end of the spacious floor were large windows – many-paned half-circles that looked candied orange slices. In between was a labyrinth of vendors selling fresh produce, meat cuts, baked-goods, and a variety of hot food (most of which looked deep-fried and delicious). I stopped in front of a cupcake vendor for several minutes, ogling the chocolate-dipped, peanut-topped confections that were basically begging to be bought and consumed. I walked on, past the jewelry stands and the clothes racks. By the door, a series of mini-art galleries had been set up and I perused. Part of me wanted to head back to the train station to find a place where my phone could recharge, to take out money, to figure out where I was supposed to meet Mrs. M, and to do a thousand things that I felt needed to be done when I got there. And part of me wanted to linger on the beauty of the colored canvases, enjoying the rare moment where standing exactly where you are is all you need to do.
I had one foot completely out the door when the band started playing, “Moon River.” This song – this song – will always be my song. And it was the only excuse I needed to stay by those paintings for another two minutes; collecting my breath, slowing down.
The song did end eventually, as was to be expected. And when the final chords faded into the hum of the crowd, I marched back into the sunshine, across the bridge to the train station.
Mrs. M. pulled up a few moments later. It was hard to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome around the little lady. Her pretty, rosy face was tucked beneath a pink cap and her bubbly smile put me at ease immediately.
“Put that in the back,” she instructed as I let my heavy pack fall gracelessly from my shoulders. “And you can sit in the front.” She pointed to the left-hand side of the car and I mentally reminded myself that I’m not in Kansas anymore. Happy to be lovingly ordered around by a mother-figure again, I seated myself in the passenger seat and felt my back and shoulders release probably three-month’s worth of stored up anxiety. The cat on my shoulders shifted slightly.
Something about that car ride was so perfect. Maybe it was the slight haze of sickness and exhaustion sweeping over me in waves or the fact that I finally didn’t have to worry about where I was going because someone else was behind the wheel, but it was the most relaxing, most needed half hour of my recent past.
Mrs. M. gave me the car-tour of Belfast, commenting on its history and local tales in her wee Northern-Irish Brogue. We passed peace murals and buildings with barred windows. We drove along the protestant / catholic divided neighborhoods and they all seemed to be hushed in a restless slumber.
Several sights-from-the-window and a few errands later, the rows of quaint brick houses were replaced with quaint hedge fences and the smooth city road dissolved into a lovely, bumpy, broken lane. Mrs. M. pointed out the various local flora, including snowdrops and daffodils, which I had never seen in person before.
Down a road with several dips and rises, past a lovely old windmill (an actual windmill, people!), our destination came into view. The M’s live in what used to be the home of the schoolmaster (functional well in the front yard!). The walls were thick and the stairwell was narrow, dividing at the top to trail off in two directions towards the upper story. Mrs. M. enjoys interior design, which became obvious the moment I stepped through the front door. The house looked like a little doll home and her taste in colors and themes are flawless – blacks, reds and whites with candles and framed pictures; whites, blues and yellows with sailboats and old clocks; and a thousand little things that make the home look loved. And when you’re in a house that feels loved, you feel loved too.
My shoulder cat felt a little lighter.
Victoria showed me to my room, which had a big window overlooking the fields all the way down to the coastline. I could see a thin strip of blue between the green and grey. Sea. Land-locked for the last year, I was almost reduced to tears at the sight.
Mr. and Mrs. M, Victoria and I sat down around a small, white table, spread with all the trappings for a snug little lunch – pizza, salad, Irish bread with Irish butter (guys, dairy in Ireland. There is nothing better). And tea! It was a lunch to die for, and a nice change from my cheap, travel-budget meals.
The little family chattered about this and that. I don’t remember how much I contributed. I remember just being happy to be sitting there, feeling extremely welcomed, listening to their homey banter. Victoria is what every school girl should be – sure of herself but sweet, kind eyes and a ready laugh, and tresses of angelic hair. Mr. M. is a typical dad, always prepared to tell a story or share an interesting fact. He exudes a feeling of steadiness that I found incredibly reassuring as I adjusted to my week of ‘living out of a bag.’ The trio couldn’t have been a more perfect find.
When the dishes were cleared, they took me to Donaghadee, their little town by the seaside. We walked along the pier, bracing ourselves against the wind. The sky was clear enough at first to see Scotland in the distance (Scotland, everyone! I saw Scotland!), but eventually clouds rolled in, pouring rain into the grey waters beyond the sea barrier. We took pictures in front of the lighthouse (A REAL LIGHTHOUSE, MOM. I SAW ONE.) and pulled our jackets tighter as the wind whipped across the coast.
We were just about to call it a day when the sun broke out behind us, shattering the clouds and streaming into the bay, unaffected by the cold air or brazen winds. For a while we just stood there, soaking in the golden glow that came washing over the town and the scraggly rocks below. I didn’t want to take one step. I didn’t want to move. It was so easy to simply stand there, feeling the cold breeze bite my nose, listening to the water slap against the sides of the lifeboats docked below us. It was so peaceful to be absorbed in that display of light and shadows that I didn’t even notice when the cat leapt down from my shoulders. He stayed gone for the rest of the evening.
We bought candy at an old fashioned sweets store and then had ice cream at a parlor in town. By the time we drove back, we were all tired.
Settling in around their living room, embers glowing brilliantly red in their fireplace, we had tea and watched the Voice. Bits of conversation bounced between us all, but as most of us were sick, it was a quiet evening.
“Mary,” asked Mrs. M. “How long will you be here tomorrow afternoon? There are lots of things we could show you if we have time.”
I blushed, not really knowing. I hadn’t even figured out how to get out of Belfast, let alone when I was going to do it. The cat slowly crept back onto my shoulders with a hiss.
“I’m not sure yet,” I said. “I’d have to check my route.” The truth was, I didn’t know where I’d be sleeping on Sunday night or how to get to my next destination. It was an uncanny metaphor for my worries about the coming year. Where am I going? What’s next? How do I get there?
But for now: Belfast. Ever helpful, Mr. M. immediately pulled up his computer and started helping me find train times.
“Would you stay in Dublin?” Mrs. M. asked.
“I suppose that would make sense,” I said. “I can stay there Sunday night and head to Swinford in the morning.”
She nodded and looked at me with the motherly gaze of momma bear when one of her cubs has gotten lost in the woods.
“Would it be easier just to stay here Sunday night?” she asked. I held my breath. My shoulder cat flicked its tail.
“I wouldn’t want to impose,” I said hesitantly (not that I’m above inviting myself over, as we’ve already discovered).
“I think you can tell that you’re absolutely not an imposition,” said Mr. M. with a laugh. “We always joke that we should open a Bed and Breakfast because we like having people around so much.”
Mrs. M. nodded with a smile and it was settled. I mumbled a trembling, ‘thank you,’ and we continued with the last segment of the Voice as if nothing monumental had just happened. Maybe it was just a bed to sleep in for the night to everyone else, but to me it was as if someone had taken that stupid cat off my shoulders and said, “Here, you don’t need to hold on to him right now. Let me take care of him for a while.” Everyone else was caught up in whether or not Will.I.Am would pick the opera singer and I just sat there, relishing the new feeling of being feline-free.
I will never cease to be humbled and amazed by generosity.
The ten and a half hours of sleep that followed were much needed. When I finally did wake up, rain was splattering against my window and the household was moving about quietly, sleepily. The model ship sitting by the window looked ready to sail off to faraway lands and I realized I was already in one.
A cozy breakfast preceded our drive into church where I was welcomed by the small congregation. How good to hear a sermon in English again! It’s been months…
After evening service, another family came over for tea and the bundle of us sat around the kitchen table swapping stories and munching on pizza cuts. I do not remember most of the conversation (something about cement mixers? The price of ham in Madrid? Dutch people?), but I do remember how good it felt to be around people who feel like family – people who are family because their Heavenly Father is the same as mine. It felt a little like being home.
The next morning I woke up in the full throes of sickness. My throat had swelled and my cough increased. I felt disgusting and shivery.
Victoria was ready in her school uniform when I came downstairs and porridge was hot on the table. I refilled my water bottle and Mr. M. suggested I pack a sandwich for the road. Victoria gave me a “cough ball” (cough syrup, but British and … so much better tasting), and Mrs. M. said I should keep the bottle. Then she handed me a bag of peanut brittle candies and a mug we had bought in Donaghadee with some English Tea bags inside. I stowed the treasures away in my pack, so, so grateful for the provisions.
The M’s dropped me off outside the bus station with lots of hugs and ‘goodbyes.’ It seemed like too quick an end to such a lovely respite from my travels.
But the bus picked me up and I started the journey back to Dublin, happily nibbling my sandwhich, off to the next adventure. Despite feeling sick, I also felt rested. That’s something I don’t – and maybe most young people don’t – appreciate nearly enough.
Even though Belfast was just a small part of my much longer trip through Ireland, it was important for me (and the cough ball was crucial for my survival the second half of the trip). As someone always rushing off to the next grand whatever, or worrying about the looming possibilities the future could hold, I found it good to stumble upon a place that begged me to stay – just for a moment. Just long enough for an old song, or a gentle car ride, or a golden sunset. It was good to be the receiver, the patient, the guest, if for no other reason than to serve as a humbling reminder of how much we need each other. It was good to rest in Belfast, just for a weekend long enough to see a glimmer of what our final rest will look like – probably something like a round white table, spread with tea, and all God’s children chatting away happily — cat-free.