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Sunday, August 15, 2010, in Peel, Isle of Man, United Kingdom

Hi everyone. We’re on our own again and the boys are gallivanting somewhere in Europe without us. Last week, we were still in Bangor, a suburb of Belfast.

Sundays are often quiet around town, so this was the day we selected to attend the Belfast Taste & Music Festival. We took the train to the university part of town and walked along a strip of cafes and shops to the Botanical Gardens, where the festival was in its final day. Across a small residential street was a fake utility wire draped from one side to another, festooned with socks in alternating colors of black and white. Outside of the university’s library was a large sculpture of a head, constructed as though it was made of movable type. We went through the gates to the park and got our tickets. The ticket-sellers, no doubt students, were happy that we���d asked for advice about which of the booths we needed to visit.

We loved the premise of the festival, food and music. A stage was set up alongside the large square, and throughout the day, bands of all types – rock, jazz, and many, many tribute bands �� performed for us. The band that was performing when we walked in was an Irish band called “The 4 of us” (although it was down to its founding members �������������the two of us”). This band has apparently enjoyed a lot of success in Ireland, having bested U2 in a best song competition one year. Unlike the rock band we saw at City Hall, they didn’t overpower us with sound, but it was well worth paying attention to them. I was delighted when they sang the folk song, “I wish I was in Carrickfergus”, because I’d hoped that I’d hear the line that rhymed with Carrickfergus. Turns out that the pattern didn’t require the first and third lines to rhyme, so the word Id strained to hear turned out to be “ocean”. Oh well.

But the point of the festival was food, and there was plenty of it. We’d arrived at a perfect time to commandeer a table for the four of us. Restaurants, caterers and local hotels were lined up at booths, each offering three or four dishes that we could buy with tokens. These were no doubt a representation of some of the best restaurants in Belfast, and they were trying to impress us with innovation, presentation, and taste. It worked. We stalked each booth and kept returning to the table with a small plate of something made with local ingredients or the specialty of the restaurant. Every time one of us left the table, someone would come by and ask politely if the empty chair was available. Eventually, people were standing and eating, or spread out on the grassy park and eating, or finishing one dish while they were standing in line waiting for the next dish.

It was a great excuse to get us to a neighborhood in Belfast that we might not have seen if the festival hadn’t been on, and we wandered around in the botanical garden and the greenhouse before we walked back to the train that would bring us home to Bangor.

The next day, we spent a quiet day in our own neighborhood, and it was time to head back into Belfast to get our crew on a bus to Dublin and their flight onward.

For all but two weeks of the last nine, we’d been with company. We’d need to devote a day or two to putting the boat back together, and we were completely unscheduled for tourism or itinerary progress. We didn’t need to see anything, get anywhere, or do anything.

Thus, we devoted some time to inspecting plumbing parts for our cooking gas, scavenger hunting for boring shopping for household items, and getting Art an overdue haircut. The weather was windy and chilly, and I kept having to remind myself that this was August. Pretty soon it would start to cool off, and it really hadn’t warmed up yet.

The weather was sparkling on our last full day in Northern Ireland, and we decided to go back to Belfast for a last look. This was the first day that we’d be at St. George’s Market when a market was actually in session, and we walked through the grand Victorian gates into what amounted to a picked-over garage sale next to a seafood kiosk which sold squids that are to calamari as Mark McGuire is to high school athletes. The lobster claws looked like the inspiration for Popeye’s arms. You could take a lobster and cut it up like a chicken for a family.

We then decided to take a tour of the town on the sunny half of a double-decker bus. This is the sort of thing we might do on a first day in a new place, and we’d already walked back and forth the downtown areas more than once, but we’d not yet been anywhere that wasn’t in a small walking radius. So we got on the bus, scored two sunny seats upstairs, and were on our way.

The tour took us by some of the sights we’d seen on our walking tour, but we drove out of the commercial area to Stormont Estate, a gorgeous parliament building of stone and granite, with a castle for visiting royalty next door. We drove by the birthplaces of both C. S. Lewis, creator of Narnia, and Van Morrison, creator of Moondance.

There was snark aplenty in the tour narrative. The City Hospital is a yellow monstrosity of a building, and was deemed one of the UK’s architectural disasters by a rather undiplomatic Prince Charles. Returning the favor, our guide said, “He thinks that building is ugly, and then he married Camilla!” The tour took us by the Europa Hotel, which prides itself (on a sign, yet) of being the most bombed hotel in Europe, and they don’t mean Guinness. The courthouse is across the street from the jail (or gaol, actually), connected under the street by what’s ironically called “the tunnel of love,” where the escorting police apparently have met the romantic dreams of convicted criminals, if the criminals happened to be into S&M. But the highlight of the trip for us was the tour through West Belfast, which hadn’t been a walkable destination for us. This is the home of the Catholic nationalists (who’d prefer to be part of the Catholic Irish Republic) and the Protestant loyalists, who are happy to be under the Crown. The most visible expression of political commentary is the plethora of brightly-painted murals, mostly political, and disturbingly emotional. There are gates that allow daytime transit between religious communities (more than 90% of children go to faith-segregated schools, and 98% of housing is self-segregated). These gates close at night. Not surprisingly, there isn’t a lot of intermarriage, compared to other areas of the UK. So peace has been achieved, but there’s still a long way to go.

We passed a bar with a mural in honor of Hurricane Higgins, a world snooker champion from Belfast who died of throat cancer after battles with alcohol, drugs and gambling. The city airport is named for footballer (soccer player) George Best, a high-flying celebrity who died from alcohol-related complications. There’s a musical in town about him. I’ll bet it’s cheerful.

We’d been in Bangor a week, and the weather was right for a move onward. Our departure was timed to reach Peel, on the Isle of Man, during the brief window when the harbor would be open. The forecast was for light winds from a good direction. The winds were stronger than we expected once we got out to sea, but they were still from a good direction, and we flew across the Irish Sea, aided by a favoring current. The day was crystal clear; I could see the island from twenty miles away. Gannets flew across our bow, and I wondered how far south we’d continue to see them swooping offshore.

Art had to keep reefing the jib, just to slow us down. We kept getting up to hull speed, with a one-knot lift, and by the time we nearly arrived, he’d wound the jib into a kind of handkerchief size.

The reason we had to arrive at the right time was the tide, but Isle of Man makes it even more complicated than that. The harbor is dredged, and left to her own devices, Nature would drain all the water out of it at low tide. So two hours on each side of high tide, the town of Peel places a wall into the harbor, effectively trapping inside the deep water. When the low tide comes up again to meet the height of the inner harbor, the wall is removed, and boats can go in and out.

We didn’t have to wait very long, and the wall was opened, and a pedestrian bridge across the harbor swung out of the way. Boats who had been trapped in Peel in strong winds motored out of the harbor to their next destination, and we motored in, receiving instructions as to where we should dock inside the marina. A seal swam by us inside the harbor, bobbing his head and looking as entranced by the water as a Labrador retriever. And now we were trapped by the tides, but we were happy to be in this resort town.

I’ll save Isle of Man for next week. We’re still doing fine, and on schedule for the rest of our trip. Hope you’re all having August fun.

Love, Karen (and Art)