In my experiences I have found that there are many ways to see a city. You can visit its museums and galleries and become immersed in its culture. You can study its architecture and walk amongst its people for a flavour of the life. Or you can spend twenty-two hours in a panic-striken haze of beer, excitement over seeing your favourite singer-songwriter and the anxiety of making an early flight home on Saturday morning in order to attend a wedding reception you had absent-mindedly double booked yourself for. I chose the latter because I’m an idiot and that’s the sort of thing an idiot does.
Matters of timing aren’t the only way I know how to make a trip unnecessarily difficult for myself, and flying to Belfast proved more of an arduous affair than waking up for the return flight would be. I was already running a little later than I had anticipated due to a hangover weighing me down in my bed and clouding my judgment, and all I could think about was how I could possibly make an 8.20 flight from Belfast the next morning when I am struggling to reach Glasgow Airport in time for a 9.15 departure. I went through the process at security of transferring my liquids (but not all of my liquids, as I could still feel quite a bit of Budweiser in my system) and gels into the clear plastic bags they like these things to be kept in and I unbuckled my belt and placed all of this into the dim grey tray. As I walked away towards the scanner I had the realisation that I had forgotten to take my phone out of my pocket and the watch from my wrist. I stopped in my tracks, sighed and cursed my ineptitude and decided that as my tray was already gone I would carry on and walk through the scanner with these forbidden items upon my person. What’s the worst that could happen?
The scanner immediately went off to alert everybody that I am some kind of idiot and without hesitation I handed over the contraband like a naive criminal who has been caught red-handed in his heinous deed. I was certain that owning up to my mistake straight away would let the security officer see that I had recognised the items which had set off the scanner and we could both move on with our lives without further incident, but he frowned as I placed my phone and watch in his hand then asked that I take off my shoes. I am unfamiliar with other people asking me to take items of clothing off my body and it was in this moment that I remembered that I wasn’t expecting anybody to be requesting the removal of clothes on this trip either, and more specifically I wasn’t expecting that anybody would be looking at my socks. I contemplated suggesting that he should at least buy me a pint first, but he didn’t seem like the kind of man who would appreciate sarcasm in this situation and I was probably going to have to come to terms with the knowledge that my socks are not suitable for public viewing.
I tried to plead with him with my eyes, as though to say: Please don’t make me take off my shoes. I’ve already owned up to my crimes and you can quite clearly see that I’m just a hung over idiot. My socks are the clothing representation of what it would look like if there was a gathering of every Pope from history and Mother Theresa and Bono – very holy. But there was no way I could actually say those words without drawing further attention to my socks, so I silently untied my laces and removed my shoes one at a time. First the right shoe, and I felt a pleasant relief when I saw that my black sock was fully intact. Then I slipped off the left boot and handed it over to the officer. This sock initially seemed fine too and I was feeling quite good about myself, until I was directed to stand on the spot where two painted footprints suggest I should be standing and I noticed that the fourth toe on my left foot was attempting to make a break for freedom from its cotton prison, just this little pink blob wanting to take advantage of the slight glimmer of light seen through a gap in the material big enough for a sneaky toe to bundle through if it really tried. Then the security officer consulted the picture which has just been taken of my insides and he confirmed that I’m just some idiot who forgot to take off his watch and hand over his phone and I’m left standing in my socks, one of them with a small hole in it, waiting for at least two minutes for my belongings to appear on the conveyor. Now there’ll be an attack. This is when those bastards will hit Glasgow Airport — when I’m standing here wearing socks with holes in them! And this is how my body will be discovered and I’ll forever be remembered as the man they found with a hole in his socks. He couldn’t run away because he was wearing his socks, they’ll say, and what’s worse is that one of them had a hole in it and a little pink toe was poking through it!
I arrived in Belfast on Friday morning with no firm idea of what I was going to do before the Ryan Adams concert that evening – a feeling I am familiar with most days of my life. I have prepared a Google Document outlining at least three pretentious hipster craft beer bars I would like to experience in each of the places I will be visiting during this Ryan Adams tour (eight towns and cities, seven gigs) but I knew that ten o’clock in the morning was much too early to start drinking IPA when I was hoping to be vaguely sensible on account of the early flight on Saturday, so I stopped off in an average-sized local coffee shop and ordered a large cup of caffeine in the hope of stimulating my mind and kicking the hangover. It was because of this coffee that I was able to recognise that I could get myself onto the free walking tour of the city which began across the square outside City Hall at 11am.
A free walking tour (or, more accurately, a “pay what you want” walking tour) is a fine way of seeing the points of interest in a city if you are short on time and can’t decide which of the sights you would like to visit. The guide on this particular tour, Gavin, was an engaging retired school teacher who spoke with a Northern Irish accent that was much easier to understand than others I have encountered. He weaved a story of how Belfast became the city it is today as we walked around various streets, all while I was considering how best to strike up a conversation with one of the American girls in the group. If there is one thing I struggle with it is walking and trying to think (or perform any kind of multi-tasking on the move, really.) If there are two things I struggle with it is that and trying to talk to girls; so I was confronted with two of my greatest difficulties on this walking tour of Belfast.
I found myself walking alongside this American girl (who was presumably raised on promises and couldn’t help thinking that there’s a little more to life somewhere else) between several points on the two-hour tour but I never knew what to say to her. Every time I tried to speak the words would become caught in my mouth like a little pink toe in a small hole and I would remember how I had already once been shown to be an idiot today and thought better of it.
“I heard you’re from Tennessee. How about that Elvis guy?”
“Shame about all those sectarian bombings Gavin has been telling us about…but you have such pretty hair.”
“Those knee cappings sound brutal, but on another note, I really like the way you walk.”
Nothing I could think of seemed right, so naturally I waited until the end of the tour when a handful of stragglers who weren’t sure how better to spend their afternoon – maybe six or seven of us in total – were invited to a nearby pub to buy Gavin lunch. At least I knew that with the walking tour finished if my haphazardly blurted question about the American girl’s travels failed miserably and resulted in the peace wall being closed I wouldn’t have to endure the awkwardness of walking around the city with a group of strangers whilst feigning interest in this or that.
In the end, after a couple of hours in this pub sheltering from the rain and talking to the American girl, and long since the remaining members of the group had left, I found myself wondering why I have spent much of my adult life as a man scared to talk to new people when there is so much to be learned. Before yesterday I had no idea that the Belgian city of Gent produces exceptional mustard or that many mountains in Germany will have huts halfway up them that sell beer. Nor did I know that the female outfit traditionally worn at Oktoberfest is called a Dirndl or that some people in the southern states of America will hunt frogs for fun.
With much newly acquired knowledge to ponder I reached for my phone and consulted my Google Document and Google Maps in an effort to locate some of the craft beer bars I had noted. It struck me that even ten years ago this trip would have been all the more difficult to co-ordinate without so much information at my fingertips, but that after a couple of pints of Maggie’s Leap the night becomes a little less easy to co-ordinate and beer acts as a kind of counter balance to technology. I didn’t get lost on that point for long (or at all, thanks to Google Maps) and worked my way back up Great Victoria Street towards Ulster Hall. I had resolved to stop drinking beer before the gig in order to give me half a chance to wake up in time for my flight in the morning, but I had miscalculated the time it would take me to walk from The Garrick to the venue and ended up with too much time to wait before Ryan Adams was due on stage at 8.45pm, so I made a stop in The Apartment for a Jack Daniels Honey and lemonade. At £5.60 I was convinced that this would be my last drink of the night.
It had been two years and two months since I last saw Ryan Adams play live and Ulster Hall seemed like an ideal venue for my twenty-first time seeing him, with its long history including the distinction of being the first place in the world where Led Zeppelin performed Stairway to Heaven. It felt small for a ‘hall’, in a good intimate kind of way, and there was some kind of incense burning in the room which smelled exactly like I remember from attending mass as a child. For the first few songs all I could think about was the memory of going to church on a Sunday with my mother and brother and sister, and I got to thinking about how different my life would be if I had been encouraged to listen more to the teachings of the Catholic church by Father MacKinnon rocking out on the altar like the KISS demon.
Without a plastic tumbler of Jack Daniels in each hand the gig going experience was a little different, and remains more fresh in my memory today. I think I enjoyed the music more, although perhaps not as exuberantly as I might with a bellyful of whiskey, and I could become immersed in the emotional aspect of the event – especially when Ryan took the opportunity in the middle of the set to play a rare song with a happy, positive vibe: “This is Stay With Me. It’s about wanting someone to stay with me…and make my life miserable.”
After setting twenty-seven alarms on my phone in an effort to make certain that I would wake up for my flight to Glasgow at 8.20 on Saturday morning I found that one would have sufficed, as the anxiety of missing the wedding reception coupled with the unusual sensation of being not entirely drunk on a Friday night meant that I didn’t really sleep much at all. I arrived at Belfast City Airport with more than two hours to spare and I wondered why I couldn’t suffer a security scare now. With time to kill and socks which were fully intact this would have been the perfect opportunity for some security officer to find that I am an idiot.
Unknown bar – unknown location
Bootleggers Bar – 46 Church Lane
The Dirty Onion – 3 Hill Street
The Garrick – 29 Chichester Street
Apartment – Donegall Square West
Olympia Theatre, Dublin – Monday 11th & Tuesday 12th September