My friend Virginia offers to show me some non-Titanic facets of her cisatlantic city. With Ruby Murray in the CD player (Céline Dion safely in the trunk), we roll down some strategically plotted side streets.
It is, indeed, a good-looking conurbation, with a pleasing geometry of avenues and boulevards, ribbons of parks, gardens and promenades, expressive bridges and statues (an evocative modern sculpture on the River Lagan is called The Thing with the Ring, or The Doll on the Ball), and murals.
The murals of Belfast draw some commonalities with Titanic, in that they were once scars of shame for many in the community, with some trying to erase or block, but now are tourist attractions. Throughout the politely-termed "The Troubles," between the late 1960s and 1998, both sides (Nationalist Catholics and Unionist Protestants) painted large murals on buildings, particularly in residential areas on houses at the end of terraced rows. They acted as beacons, declaring allegiances from one area to the next, but also created a sense of belonging and identity.
Not all were designed to incite. Some show a Celtic flair, some feature sports figures, one depicts the mythical Irish hero Cuchulainn; another shows two smiling children in front of flowers and a lion. One is a Picasso reproduction, painted by artists from both sides of the political divide. And one on Downing Street features the Titanic before the downing. All inject color into neighborhoods, and make Belfast a living outdoor art museum. And what color! My image of Belfast is from old black and white newsreels, and video shot by daring journalists at night. But now, here, we're in color!
The most colorful may be The Red Hand of Ulster, which is more legend than politics, depicting a severed seaside hand on a rock with its former owner in an approaching boat. Ulster is the province of Ireland (there are four in total) that makes up Northern Ireland. One of the counties of Ulster is County Donegal, which is part of The Republic of Ireland, or Southern Ireland. Oddly enough, parts of County Donegal lie further north than Northern Ireland.
Anyway, the mural depicts the Irish-style over-reaching that Virginia has described. The story goes that long ago the kingship for Ulster was up for grabs between two rival princes. After much debate, it was decided to have a boat race. The first to touch land would be king. As the race was nearing completion, the second son was falling behind. Not to be outdone, the lagging son cut off his hand and threw it up on the shore, making him the first to touch land, becoming, hands down, the new King of Ulster.
In the afternoon we take a ride about town, and often Virginia has me avert eyes, or look at the floor mat, so as to avoid Titanic exposures. But she allows me to look up as we pass the Obel Tower apartment building, at 279 feet the tallest building in Ireland (we're back, baby, bigger than before), past the peculiar McDonald's (what they call the American Embassy), and by the Clifton Street Cemetery in North Belfast, home of the original body snatchers. "The Black North" was an expression used for time by the Republic of Ireland referring to the majority presence of Protestants in Northern Ireland, though earlier references suggest a nod to the soot that blacked the buildings and the air at the height of Boomtown Belfast's era as the world's leading industrial city. Others submit it had to do with the 19th century black side of Belfast, with its surfeit of hangings, beheadings, brothels and body snatchers.
The "resurrection men," as they were known in Victorian Belfast, dug up corpses and shipped them out to medical schools in Edinburgh. A single cadaver could earn the equivalent of three-years' wages, so, of course, the practice provokes private moral questions, as they still do as we imagine ourselves on board the tarry night Titanic sank with too few lifeboats: what would I have done?
So, we make it through the day without bending towards the brand Titanic, and I'm hungry like the sea. To celebrate, we head to dinner at The Merchant, the former Ulster Bank in the Cathedral District, now a swank hotel and restaurant. We sink into "The Great Room Restaurant," and before we can rejoice in a thoroughly unTitanic day, we're presented with a prix fixe tasting menu inspired by the final meal at the Captain's Table on the steamship Titanic. Before I can shutter my eyes the waiter submits a sheet showing that last supper:
As served in the first-class dining saloon of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 14, 1912
Cream of Barley
Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce, Cucumbers
Filet Mignons Lili
Saute of Chicken, Lyonnaise
Vegetable Marrow Farci
Lamb, Mint Sauce
Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce
Sirloin of Beef, Chateau Potatoes
Parmentier & Boiled New Potatoes
Roast Squab & Cress
Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette
Pate de Foie Gras
Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly
Chocolate & Vanilla Eclairs
French Ice Cream
All I can do is think double sorrow for those who said, "No, thank you," to dessert that night.
Up to that ultimate dessert the passengers on the Titanic canoe ate like locusts (consuming their own weight daily). On board the boat were 75,000 pounds of fresh meat, 11,000 pounds of fish, and 40 tons of potatoes. There were 1,750 pounds of ice cream, and 400 asparagus tongs. There was a ton of coffee, and enough flour for 60,000 loaves of bread. And, of course, 35,000 fresh eggs and 10,000 pounds of sugar. Then the liquid franca: some 1,500 bottles of wine. All for 2,223 passengers and crew on a five-day cruise.
Now fully victualed, we decide to head out for a nightcap, and walk down the street to the Oh Yeah Music Centre, a former bonded whiskey godown, now a charity for budding musicians, offering cheap rehearsal space, a recording studio, a song writing room, and tonight, live music and a bar featuring Punch Romaine. Yup, the same Punch Romaine that was the sixth course on the Titanic meal, meant as a palate cleanser between the meat and pigeon. There is no escaping Titanic in Belfast; resistance is futile. But the punch is pleasant, and the barkeep shares the ingredients: 20 ml Sauvignon Blanc; 10 ml Havana Rum; 35 ml fresh orange juice; 15 ml lemon juice; 10 ml cane syrup, topped off with champagne. It is, dare I say, to die for.
Continue to part four of this series.