Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Strike It Lucky

So what do we all think of this whole strike business then? Last week Unison announced that its members had voted in favour of a strike and then this week the news came that NIPSA had followed suit. The big strike is due to take place on 30 November. So, it is just whingey public servants complaining because their golden handcuffs have now lost some of their shine, or is there a genuine reason for complaint?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have a confession to make. I am a civil servant. This is perhaps not shocking news, especially when you consider the name of this blog and the picture of a mug of tea above. I am also a NIPSA member.

It wasn't always that way - I used to think that unions were all mouth and no trousers, making mountains out of molehills in individual cases and playing the yappy poodle nipping at the government's ankle with the bigger issues (annoying certainly, but pretty easy to kick should they actually draw blood). Being totally honest I still do think that a wee bit. However, very sadly, in this era of blame culture it's nice to have the knowledge that someone will be on your side if something goes wrong at work, even if only because you're paying them to. And so, after a couple of incidents at work a few years ago that had fried my nerves, I signed up.

This of course means that I get the option to vote when they propose something like strike action. I must admit, I stared long and hard at my voting card before I made a decision this time around. There were two questions, essentially:

(1) Are you in favour of strike action?
(2) Are you in favour of action that is short of strike action?

Since the example given for the latter was stop agreeing to do overtime, I knew I was definitely all for that one - I never get the opportunity for overtime anyway so it was no skin off my nose. However, I pondered, if it doesn't really affect me, what effect is it really going to have on the evil government pension people either? So, to strike or not to strike, that was the question?

Another confession: I don't really understand much about pensions. I get that I contribute a certain amount from my salary and then the government is supposed to cough up a certain amount to go with it, so when I finally retire (probably at the age of 92 the way things are going), have my celebratory bun party and sail off into the sunset on the first Metro bus out of Civil Serviceville, I still have enough of an income to put the central heating on once a week in winter and keep me in tins of cat food. I also understand that the whole problem erupted this time because essentially the government want us to pay more, whilst they contribute less, and make us work for longer.

However that's pretty much all I clearly understand, because all of the other facts are obscured by selective statistics, bold claims and other general propaganda from both sides. NIPSA want us to see the government as the enemy, to the extent that the covers of their recent awareness leaflets actually have targets on them, with catchy slogans as subtle as "government has your pay in its sights" (be afraid worker bees, be very afraid!). In the meantime the government is trying to prevent half its workforce walking out on strike by employing the old stick and carrot routine, on the one hand telling us that their proposed offer will give us "at least as good a pension, if not better, than you get now" (widely condemned as utter nonsense), whilst on the other hand sending us emails warning us that striking will be breaking the terms of our employment contracts (doom, doooooom!).

I can be a little ditzy at times in life but generally I'm a logical and pragmatic person, so it annoys me that I can't just get the straight facts to help me work out what's really in my best interests. It leaves me feeling a little like Clover from Animal Farm, feeling entirely uncertain about who's right and who's wrong, having "great difficulty in thinking anything out" for myself and just hoping that somewhere at the top, the right people really are doing what's best for me. But we all know how that turned out for Clover…

What I have been able to establish is that with the government's current proposals, I could be paying somewhere around £60 more per month to my pension fund. The government will also be paying less in to my pension fund. So essentially I would be paying a lot more of my pay than I can afford to something that will benefit me less in the long run. It's hardly very appealing when you put it like that.

What I don't understand is how the terms and conditions of something like a pension scheme can just be changed without the consent of both parties. I mean, I signed an agreement that I would pay x% and they would pay x% and (naively) assumed that would remain the status quo until I retired, or at the very least that they would have to ask for my agreement if they wanted to change it. Granted, somewhere in the small print there is probably some get-out clause for them saying that the terms and conditions are subject to change, but when you work for the government, you don't really expect that the government will try and screw you over in return, or at least not to this extent. They've already frozen our pay (which, given inflation and cost of living increases, is essentially a pay cut) and now they want us to pay up even more.


The longer I work in the public service, the more cynical I get. Essentially we're just numbers, not valued employees. When I log on to some internal systems it greets me by my payroll number and not my name; it always reminds me of the bit in Who Am I? from Les Misérables when he sings "Who am I? Two Four Six Oh Oooonnnneeee!" Bottom line, so far as senior government officials are concerned, each civil servant is like a maths equation. If employee A works for X hours per week, gets paid £Y per year and produces Z amount of work, solve for potential savings. I feel like going all Elephant Man on them and insisting that "I am a human being!"

Wow lots of cultural references today. Please be assured it's an aberration. My favourite show is Glee for goodness sake!

But actually that brings me back to why I eventually decided to vote in favour of strike action. I know that the unions are always up in arms about something. I know that their propaganda is mostly made up of arbitrary statistics and designed purely to scare people into action. I am not quite so naive that I will blindly believe whatever they tell me but I'll willingly admit that my knowledge of the specifics and the actual ramifications is a somewhat lacking. But yet, even in my ignorance, even I can see the unions have a point this time.

I believe that I currently get paid a pretty fair wage for the job I do. Some private sector jobs in the same discipline pay more, some pay less. However the end result of these pension changes is that I will be more than £750 a year worse off with no immediate hope of any pay increase to make up for it. Also that when I signed up to my job, one of the perceived benefits was good pension contributions from my employer, which is also now headed for a sharp decline.

But perhaps more significantly to me than these disadvantages on a personal level is the precedent it will set. If we all just roll over and say, "sure, screw me over, I don't mind!" this time, what's to stop them doing it again and again in future years? By the time I reach retirement age at 104 my pension could be worthless and I could still be on the bottom of my pay scale.

So I feel it's only appropriate that we take a stand now. Okay so we might not get another improved offer and it could all be for nothing, but at least it shows that we're not going to take it lying down. So I'll be sacrificing a day's pay, but realistically that's less than the extra amount they want me to pay each month in pension contributions anyway. And just imagine if it worked and the government did indeed back down - it could all be worth it. Unlikely (cynical me emerging again) but you never know.

So now there is really only one very important decision I have to make. Will I bother getting out of bed that morning or just make the most of my unpaid day off? I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Cocktails, Culinary Delights and Comedy Gold

I had been looking forward to last Friday night for literally months. The Yorkshireman and I love a good stand up comedy show and we've been to see Jimmy Carr a good few times already, so when we found out he was returning to the Belfast Waterfront Hall with his Laughter Therapy tour this November, tickets were purchased pretty quickly. Friday 4th November was to be the night and it was to be a merry band of three, as sister dearest (also a comedy fan) had decided to join us.

However after a long day (nay, long week) at work, sustenance and alcohol would be required before we even thought about the show itself. We met up in Victoria's Bar on the corner of Victoria Street and Chichester Street. It's a bar that has been through a few incarnations in its time, perhaps most memorably The Advocate, so named presumably because it's across the road from the Courts and was popular with be-suited legal eagles with a cheeky glass of red in one hand and a Blackberry in the other.

These days it's still quite plush but it has a trendier twist to it. It also offers £3.50 happy hour cocktails, which appealed to us greatly. Sister dearest and I happily enjoyed Sex On The Beach (cheeky!) but the Yorkshireman was clearly not in a fruity mood and instead went for a pint of the black stuff (Guinness, for the uninitiated). We sat outside, sipping our drinks as dusk fell over the city, enjoying the slight chill in the air and some good music being piped out of the bar. How very urbane!

A quick time check revealed that we should probably get our skates on if we were to duck in under the bar of the early bird menu at our chosen dinner spot. I've only ever been to The Northern Whig at night, when it was too dark and too loud to communicate with anyone, so it hadn't left an amazing impression on me. However I'd been hearing a lot of good things about their food in recent times and in the spirit of second chances I was willing to give it a chance to change my mind. The fact that they serve an early evening two course meal for £10 was enough to persuade the Yorkshireman.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from our dining experience, but the place was already full when we arrived, so it's clearly a popular choice! A lovely waitress told us that if we could wait five minutes she would find us a table for three. Perfect. We decided on a bottle of wine to share and settled in at the bar in the meantime. The wine was just their house white (a nice Chilean Riveroak Sauvignon Blanc for £14.50) but it was lovely. Sister dearest was all proud of herself when the label confirmed her suspicions of a hint of gooseberry. Perhaps she has a burgeoning career there as our generation's Jilly Goolden. Does anyone else remember her? Why do I remember her?

*Shakes fist at parents who made us endure hours of TV hell in the form of shows like Food and Drink*

Ah well, childhood trauma aside we'll get back to the night in question...

We were merrily sipping our wine at the bar and checking out the elegant and quite plush décor (I do love a good chandelier) when, before we knew it, we were summoned to our table along the back wall. We were given our menus with a warning that the two course set menu was only available until 6.45pm - in only 7 minutes time! With the Mission Impossible theme running through our minds, we quickly made our choices and downed our menus in the hope that the waitress would return on time to take our orders. Thankfully even though she had a huge party to serve beforehand, she was very efficient and we ordered just on time.

For my main course I opted for the pork and leek sausages with colcannon mash and a roast onion jus. The Yorkshireman and sister dearest both went for the lemon crumbed haddock with a crushed potato & saffron cream. My meal was exactly what I'd hoped for: decent sausages and mash with a tasty gravy; just the right sort of comfort food required after a hard week at work. My fellow diners were completely blown away with their meals. The haddock was beautifully cooked and breadcrumbed and the saffron cream sauce was just delicious. So far, so good!

For dessert sister dearest and I had both ordered vanilla tart served with Guinness ice cream and the Yorkshireman had gone for the sticky toffee pudding. We waited a good while for our dessert to show and I started to worry about our timings. Eventually our waitress bustled over, all apologies saying that they had run out of vanilla tart. Okay, no problem. I went for the homemade banoffee toffee and bananas combined on a delicious crumbly biscuit base instead, which had the unfortunate side-effect of getting the Buttery Biscuit Base song stuck in my head (you must watch this if you have not yet had the pleasure). Sister dearest opted for the rocky road frozen ice cream cake with mallow and fudge pieces and chocolate chunks.

By this stage it was 7.40pm (20 minutes before Jimmy Carr was due to start all the way over at the Waterfront Hall) so I had to be cheeky and ask for the bill at the same time. Thankfully our desserts arrived not long thereafter (thanks, nice waitress lady) and they were indeed worth the wait. My banoffee was pretty much like the one I make at home, but I love my banoffee so that was a good thing! The Yorkshireman's sticky toffee pudding was a hit too. I did sneak a taste of his warm toffee sauce and have to agree it was pretty darn good. Sister dearest enjoyed her rocky road too, although the base was unfortunately a bit too frozen for even the sharp edge of a spoon and some brute force to contend with and so some remained uneaten.

Possibly also a contributing factor to the abandoned dessert was that I was ushering everyone out in a hurry, bearing in mind there was now only 4 minutes to go until the show kicked off, a good 10-15 minute walk away. In the end we tumbled into a taxi helpfully parked outside and instructed the driver to go go go! It was £4 well spent and we took our seats just as the bell was going off outside to announce the start of the show. Perfect timing!

The show was, as it has been every year, absolutely hilarious. I am in awe that Jimmy Carr manages to have such a huge repertoire of material. Okay so if you follow him on Twitter or watch some of the TV shows he's on, you might notice one or two jokes being reused, but for the most part every tour is fresh and original. To be fair you could go and see the same show twice and it would be slightly different each time because a lot of it relies on audience participation. Plus the man is a genius when it comes to slapping down hecklers. I won't spoil any of the material for those who might still be going to see it, or will watch it on DVD or TV, but if you ever get the chance to go and see him live, I would snap those tickets up.

You get a good amount of entertainment for your money too. The show started at 8pm and we didn't get home until around 11.30pm. I appreciate a bit of bang for my buck! So all in all it was a pretty great evening. Good company, good food, good drinks and a damn good show. What more can a girl ask for?

The next comedy show we have tickets for is Sarah Millican in March and I'm really looking forward to that one. I always find her hilarious on TV but any time she's been in Belfast the tickets have been sold out before I could get hold of any. So that's something to look forward to. Now just to find another restaurant on my "must try" list to dine at beforehand. Well, you've got to make a night of it, don't you?

Monday, 7 November 2011

Hen Party on the loose - Belfast beware!

A relative of mine is getting married soon, which of course meant a hen party, or as seems to be the increasingly popular choice these days, a hen weekend. However said relative is in her forties, divorced with an adult daughter and actually lives in England now and had travelled "back home" to Belfast to celebrate her last month or so of the single life, so this hen weekend was a little bit different than the usual all-day piss-up in a pink fire engine round your home town. Different, but not boring!

Our group was made up of locals, Northern Irish ex-pats who now live on the mainland, and true Brits, some of whom had never been to Belfast before. The ages ranged from 18 to 60+ and personalities from the introverted to the downright mental. So we had an interesting mix of participants to say the least!

On the first night I actually only joined the party for dinner at the Washington Bar. I was only vaguely aware of this place since I had actively avoided it in its previous incarnation as the Skye Bar, famous for being hugely chavvy and for the infamous attacks and the like outside. However I'm a firm believer in second chances and I love trying out new venues, so I was happy to give it a try. And actually? It was really good! We ate in the upstairs lounge and it was all very ornately decorated but a teeny bit too dark: people were co-opting the tealights from the tables to read their menus. That said, I'm a creature of darkness myself and hiss at bright lights, so it suited me down to the ground. I had a Combo Sharing Platter (which I didn't share) for my meal and every bit of it was wonderful. I'll definitely be back.

After dinner the rest of the hens headed out to M Club's Groovy Train after dinner but it's not really my scene and I'm a bit cash-poor at the moment, so I gave it a miss. Whilst I don't regret not spending the night hobbling around the dance floor in my heeled boots to Jackon Five b-sides and spending a fortune on drinks, I did apparently miss out on meeting Steve Miller of Fat Families fame, who was merrily boogying away with the other hens. I do love that show so that was a bit of a shame. Oh well!

Day two saw us up bright and early for a very educational trip aboard an open-top City Sightseeing tour bus. Well, it would maybe have been more educational if we hadn't all been laughing hysterically for most of it, but I found it a great experience as always.

We left from the city centre (Castle Place, outside HMV) and headed over towards the Titanic Quarter. I think this is the area that surprised a lot of the locals onboard the most. It's not an area that people who live here generally frequent because until recently there wasn't really very much going on over that way except for the shipyards, etc. However there has been a lot of development over the last few years (which is still ongoing) and the area is being completely revitalised. People who actually live and work in Belfast were shocked to discover the lovely new apartments, the new PRONI building, the new Belfast Metropolitan College campus, the new Premier Inn, the Painthall Studio and of course our wonderful new masterpiece in progress, Titanic Belfast, all of which had been built practically under their noses and yet without their knowledge.

After the Titanic Quarter we braved the howling wind on the dual carriageway and headed over to Parliament Buildings. I must admit I do always have to laugh at visitors' panic when the security officers board the bus at the entrance of Stormont Estate and start searching the aisles and looking under the seats. They don't realise that it's just a precautionary measure and are convinced there must be something really wrong. Is there a bomb on the bus?! It is Belfast after all! Aaargh save us! Yeah… no. You'd think the bored-looking faces of the security staff would be a hint that there is not an immediate threat to their safety but I guess people just expect the worst. It's all a bit silly really when you consider how much security you have to go through at an airport these days, and at least these security men let you bring your bottle of water through the gates of Massey Avenue!

Having explained to the British hens what exactly Parliament Buildings was and what happens there (or more often doesn't happen there), we headed back around Lord Carson's statue (giggling because it looks like he's either sticking two fingers up at Belfast or else throwing down some funky dance moves) and back out of the Estate.

We braved the winds once again on the return to the city centre and then headed out towards the Shankill and Falls Roads. This is the part of the tour I never really like. I despise sectarianism in all its forms and I think that, like a two year old having a tantrum, the more attention you give these eejits, the more it encourages them. But still, I realise it's a part of our country's (not so distant) history and so it has the right to be included in these tours.

I don't have to like it though, especially when one of our group (a local) made a sectarian remark herself, which was met with awkward laughter from some, confused glances from others and a huge black look from me. It just proved to me that these sort of backwards attitudes still exist, closer to home than I'd like. On the other hand I overheard some of the British visitors puzzledly ask each other why it should ever be such a big deal what road you lived on, which is what I often wonder too, so perhaps there's hope yet that common sense will eventually overtake ignorance.

Leaving the bitter divides of West Belfast aside, our bus trundled up to the Queens University area, down Great Victoria Street and back into the city centre, where I left the rest of the hens to buy copious amounts of souvenirs from Carroll's Gift Shop and headed home to regroup.

That evening I met up with the group again at the slightly odd location of Long's Fish and Chip Shop, which has a reputation for being the best chippy in the city. Not a fan of batter, I opted for a chicken burger and a curry chip to line my stomach for the night of drinking inevitably ahead of me. Alas even the chicken came battered and I managed to stain my lovely new dress with a big glob of grease! The food was… ok. Nice enough but nothing special; pretty much exactly what you would expect chip shop fare to taste like really. But the "best" in Belfast? I'm not convinced. Certainly it was no better than, say, The Golden Chip in Dundonald anyway. The offish manner of the overworked ladies staffing the restaurant didn't exactly endear me to Long's either though. Ah well it was worth trying once but I won't be hurrying back.

Arteries sufficiently clogged, we embarked upon a booze-filled night of pubs aimed at the older clientelle. We started off upstairs in White's Tavern for a good few hours of live music by local duo Richard and Brendan, who covered everything from Neil Diamond to Journey to Rihanna. I really enjoyed it actually - I'm a Radio 1 kind of girl usually but it's nice to sing along to some of the classics every now and then too.

But then we headed (not very far away) to the back room at Monico Bars for yet more live music, this time a duet of very young-looking girls whose name I didn't catch. Their set was pretty much identical to the one we'd just heard at White's though, so there was a bit of déjà vu going on, not least because a few of the creepier older men who had been slobbering over our group in White's had followed us there. I'm not exactly sure how we eventually managed to extract the bride from the gropey clasps of one particularly creepy guy but eventually we decided to leave.

Our next destination was Brennan's Bar, which I used to frequent back for a decent lunch and a reasonably priced pint of Guinness when it was the Beaten Docket and I worked nearby. Unfortunately by the time we had escorted the (pretty pissed by this stage) bride up to the upstairs bar, we had lost most of our party. Apparently the siren call of McDonalds was too strong for the rest of the drunken hens to resist. Having left the bride at the bar in the company of another (equally pissed) relative, and having extracted myself from the sweaty handshakes of increasingly creepier men more than twice my age (what is it with that handshake thing older men insist on doing?!), sister dearest and I decided enough was enough and made our escape off into the night air.

By the end of the night I had reconsidered my stance on classics from the 70s and 80s: I swear if I'd heard Sweet Caroline one more time I would have felt compelled to "bam bam bammm" the offending act round the head with their microphones. However all in all it wasn't a bad night considering none of the venues were particularly my kind of thing. The bride certainly seemed to enjoy herself anyway and that's the most important thing at the end of the day.

It has given me a bit of a taste for a night out though. I'd forgotten how much fun it can be to enjoy a few drinks and perk up when you hear a good record come on ("Oh I LOVE this song!"). There are maybe only a handful of places I know in Belfast that play the sort of music I like but then crowd tends to be a bit young for me these days. However there are a few newer venues that I'd quite like to try. Now I just need some friends who actually like going out to come with me. And some money. And a spare Saturday night. Hmmm, maybe next year, eh?

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A painless Lyrical experience minus the lyrics

The Yorkshireman has already written about our little trip to the south of the city to watch The Painkiller at the Lyric Theatre but I thought I would belatedly throw in my two cents' worth as well.

My family assures me I have definitely been to the Lyric before (in its previous incarnation) but I don't really remember, so it was cool to go and check it out now that it has been completely renovated. It's quite a nice theatre actually. It's very well laid out and, although a good bit smaller than the Waterfront Hall or Grand Opera House, it's probably about the right size for the kinds of shows it tends to host. It's in a pleasant location too, which makes up for being a little way out of the city centre. It's well situated beside the Lagan and is only a few minutes' walk from the village feel of the coffee shops and restaurants on the Stranmillis Road. It was dark by the time we grabbed a couple of glasses of wine at the bar but even then the lights of the Embankment dancing on the black shimmering river proved to be quite a pretty view.

As for the play itself, well, I never really know what to make of plays. I've only ever seen a few and even then it tended to be on a school trip where the attraction was less the action on stage and more being out of school. I also like my theatre with a side of comedy and a generous helping of song and dance on top, so I wasn't sure what to expect from this music-free show.

In the end it was actually pretty funny, which was quite unexpected given that the plot centres around a hired assassin and someone who is suicidal. It was actually maybe a bit too slapstick for my tastes but I still laughed in all the right places. The acting was very good too. I've always had a bit of weird crush on Kenneth Brannagh (one of my favourite films is, weirdly, Much Ado About Nothing) and also he apparently went to the same primary school as me, so we're practically BFFs. I also have great respect for Rob Brydon, so it was a pleasure to see him grace one of our local stages.

So, having watched the Painkiller, even though I definitely enjoyed the experience, I'm still not entirely convinced about plays in general. I kept expecting the actors to burst into song at certain points and was a little disappointed when I realised I was out of luck. Also the sets, whilst impressive, couldn't quite make it real enough for me to notice the lack of special effects and clever camera angles. When a man "punches" someone on the stage, it's kind of hard to notice that no contact is actually made, no matter how quick and convincing the reactions of the "injured" party.

I also like to have a little insight into what the character is thinking and feeling, the perfect vehicle for this being a song, or even some background music reflecting the mood. However with a play (unless there's a soliloquy or something) you have to gauge that kind of thing yourself based on the actor's expressions, body language, etc, which can be a little hit and miss depending on the ability of the actor in question.

So whilst my night at the Lyric was most definitely painless (haha), I think I'll mostly be sticking to musicals in the theatre from now on. What can I say, I'm clearly just a sucker for a bit of the old razzle dazzle!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Let them know it's *not* Christmastime

I recall that last year I wrote a blog post about it being too early to be thinking about Christmas, even though the world seemed to be already strong-arming me into preparing for decking halls and trimming trees. As Scott Mills proudly declared this morning on Radio 1 that he had just played the first Christmas song of the year (as per his yearly tradition, Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas Is You) I felt that familiar stubborness boil up inside me. It's too early for Christmas!

So I checked the date of my post last year and back then I apparently got as far as 6th November before I got stroppy about Christmas beginning to take a major hold on the population. However today is 21st October. More than two weeks earlier than last year. At this rate we'll be getting Christmas catalogues through the post on New Year's Eve by the year 2032! We haven't even had Halloween yet!

What with Mariah's dulcet tones invading our airwaves this morning and having booked a group Christmas party just last night myself, it's already starting to feel a bit too real for my liking. What's more is that you should have seen the restaurant's bookings diary for December - we were lucky to even get a table and our chosen date is only about a week into month!

I am now starting to feel the pressure to go Christmas shopping though. Colleagues and friends are starting to brag about how they've already bought so many of their gifts and just the other day we had the family talk about price limits for presents. Also, annoyingly, if I wanted to order anything from somewhere like the USA I do indeed need to be thinking about that sometime in the next few weeks to make sure it arrives on time. Plus with so many Christmas parties to attend you kind of need to spread the cost of your gifts over a couple of months (easier said than done - November and December are both 'break the bank' months for me). So, ok, I guess the present-buying side of things is acceptable, for practicality's sake if nothing else.

However I do draw the line at Christmas music so early in the year. We all like a bit of Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree and Last Christmas but if you start hearing them every day from mid-October they kind of lose their shine by the time you're sitting down to your turkey and the Queen's speech. With Scott Mills threatening to play one every day between now and then, it's another reason to be very glad that Chris Moyles is back on the breakfast show from Monday.

In the meantime, just like last year, I suppose I best start gift-hunting. God bless the Interwebz!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The lesser publicised divide

At work the other day a conversation started about the great divide between two types of people in Northern Ireland. It's a conversation that crops up fairly often in an office full of people from different backgrounds. What starts out as gentle stereotypical banter can often escalate into downright insults being flung around with abandon. Offence can be taken and wariness remains about those on "the other side" of the divide. To what divide am I referring? Is it between Catholics and Protestants? Nationalists and Unionists? The rich and the poor? No, my friends, I refer to city mice and country mice.

I was born and bred in Belfast and I do take pride in being a "city girl", my only shame being that Belfast isn’t a slightly bigger city. I walk through the streets of the city centre pretty much every day and I thrive on the hustle and bustle of it all. I tut at people who walk too slowly or who stop dead right in front of me. I enjoy playing "chicken" with harried-looking businessmen who clearly (mistakenly) believe that they should always have right of way on the pavement. I like being able to give confused tourists directions.

I also feel secure in the knowledge that a lot of shops will still be open when I finish work if I need to pick up something for dinner or a last-minute birthday pressie, or failing that, I can always fall back on late night shopping on a Thursday night. I love that I can finish work and go get myself a cappuccino and abuse Starbucks' free Wi-Fi for while. It's fabulous that my gym is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It's also great that, if I want to eat or drink those burned calories back on again, there are hundreds of bars, restaurants and coffee shops ready and willing to come to my aid. I peruse those free "what's on" magazines and am always pleasantly surprised at the number of diverse events going on all across the city, even if I don't actually get around to attending many of them. Culture? Luxury? Tradition? We've got it all!

However those who weren't raised in Belfast (or any other big city) don't seem to feel the same. Many of them tell me that they find cities scary or dirty or noisy or too busy or confusing. Going "into Belfast" is a big deal to them, I guess similar to how I feel when I go to Dublin on the train, not because I think Dublin is bigger or scarier etc, but just because it's somewhere I don't know like the back of my hand, so it's like a little adventure when I visit.

My friends and colleagues who live in smaller towns and rural areas apparently know most of the people they pass when they go for a walk in their local area and even go so far as to stop and talk to them. They love the fresh air, open spaces and pretty landscapes. They can't imagine a life without their car. They get snowed in when bad weather hits. They have big houses with huge gardens and often lots of pets running around. They might have been in the Young Farmers Club. They may have to drive for miles to get to the nearest supermarket or to work but it's only a minor inconvenience for them and well worth the benefits of living in a more remote area.

I guess I sort of get it... a bit... but my own lifestyle and viewpoints are so different that it's perplexing to me how anyone can feel completely the opposite as I do. If I won the lottery this weekend (although it would help if I actually played the lottery) I would do what most people would probably do and think about investing in some property. However whilst my country mouse friends would be looking at seven bedroom rural retreats, I would be looking at city centre penthouse apartments. Taking care of acres of grass and cleaning four bathrooms sounds like a pain in ass to me and quite frankly I would wither away being miles away from anything and anyone. However show me a panoramic view of the hills and river by day and the glittering city lights by night and add in a good café on my doorstep and I'm pretty much in heaven.

My theoretical rural-based lottery winners might also think about buying a new car - something big and tough like a Land Rover, or a sporty wee number to race around those blind bends on country roads at a bazillion miles an hour - yet a car wouldn't cross my mind. That's not to say that if money were no object I wouldn't start ordering taxis or town cars to pick me up from my luxurious penthouse apartment rather than waiting for buses in the rain, but learning to drive and then buying a cute little convertible would be pretty far down my list of priorities because who needs to drive when you live in a city?

Even attitudes to holidays seem pretty different. We supposedly go on holiday to "get away from it all" but yet we all seem more comfortable with the familiar. My country-dwelling acquaintances all seem to prefer quiet beach holidays where they can meet some nice people (usually from "back home") and lie in the sun all day. Either that or they rent a little cottage somewhere out of the way (to look at some different grass and trees presumably). Whereas for me, I say bring on the bright lights and big cities. I'm used to being "on the go" all the time so I don't relax easily. For me to have a truly great time I need to have exciting things to see and do all around me and preferably be within a few minutes of a caffeine fix when I need one. It's rare to find a Starbucks on a sandy beach or in the middle of a forest (although give them a few years' more expansion and we'll see).

I guess it's just down to personal preference. I understand how someone can be overwhelmed in the middle of a big crowd, especially if they're not sure where they're supposed to be going. However that kind of thing just makes me feel pleasantly at sea - I love the anonymity of it all. I only tend to panic if I'm supposed to be somewhere at a specific time and I don't know where to go, but my blood pressure has definitely been higher than that when I've been sat in a friend's car in the middle of a dark country road with neither of us city mice having any idea where we were. Street lighting, people - it's the future!

I'll admit I do feel a bit superior sometimes, being a city girl, feeling at home in the busy urban streets, sufficiently au fait with the traffic light system patterns to knowingly start crossing the road just before the "green man" lights up, striding quickly down the pavement with my takeaway coffee in hand, etc. I feel that my experiences of having lived in and visited several metropolitan and cosmopolitan cities have made me more culturally aware than a lot of non-city folk who only really associate with people from the same background as themselves. I fear I do occasionally have conversations with my country mouse friends and find some of their viewpoints a bit backwards and ignorant, and I find that I often know more about a wider variety of issues.

I realise this does indeed all come across as very prejudiced and smug and judgmental. However I don't feel bad about it. Why? Because I know my "culchie" friends pity me in return. They don't want to live somewhere so impersonal and busy and impatient. They don't want to put up with annoying strangers on public transport or blowing cigarette smoke into their faces as they walk down the street. They don't want to live in a cramped two bedroom terrace with anti-social teenagers setting off fireworks and dealing drugs outside their front doors. They shake their heads with disbelief when I repeatedly say "I have no idea where that is" when someone mentions a place outside of the Greater Belfast Area. They care more about what's happening in their own community than in the wider world and look me as if to say "bless your bleeding liberal heart" if I start expressing my outrage at some political injustice or another.

These are of course sweeping generalisations and I do know people from rural areas who are highly intellectual and cultured, just as you only need walk around certain areas of Belfast at night to see people who are blatantly insular and small-minded, but in general those are my honest observations. But whilst I'm happy living in "the big smoke", they're happy to be well out of it, so I guess at the end of the day it really boils down to yet another case of "each to their own". Just don't be shipping me off to "the sticks" please - if I get any further than five miles from the city centre I start breaking out in hives.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Music can change the world because it can change people

Title quote attributed to Bono off of U2

So what do we all think about the MTV European Music Awards coming to Belfast on 6 November then?

I must admit, my attitude thus far has been mainly along the lines of "meh…" After all, it's not like I'm actually going to get to be there on the night or even see any of the celebs in person (if anyone exciting actually shows up in the end and they don't all just send a lame acceptance videos from halfway around the world instead). I figured the only way it might affect me is that the city centre would be a bit busier in the run-up to the event and that going anywhere near the Odyssey Arena on the night was a non-starter.

However as it gets closer, more and more details are being released about other events around the city and I must admit it's starting to sound like a pretty decent shebang now.

At first there was just a vague announcement about "Music Week", promising other music-themed events around the city in the week before the EMAs. Then came the programme giving details of all the gigs that would be happening. I've never really been into the local music scene so I didn't really recognise many of the acts listed, but there are certainly a lot of things occurring - kudos to the organisers.

Then, last week, came the news that Snow Patrol and Jason Derulo would be performing live at a free gig at the City Hall on the night of the EMAs. Tickets were available from the Belfast Welcome Centre from 8am on Sunday and when I walked past at 11pm the night before, people were already queued right back past the Disney Store, complete with folding chairs, sleeping bags and tents. Spirits seemed high and there was the occasional bout of groupie-style screaming. It seems that all 15,000 tickets were given out within an hour and some are now on sale (illegally) for over £150, so it looks to be a popular event!

There have been a few other rumours floating around too. The latest issue of GO magazine hinted that there would be two big external events related to the EMAs. Whether the second of these is the newly announced Red Hot Chili Peppers gig at the Ulster Hall isn't clear, but at £42.40 a ticket I'm guessing demand won't be quite as high for that one. It's quite a small venue for such a huge act though, so it'll probably sell out quite quickly.

Money and spare time are both in short supply at the moment for me though, so I'm not sure how many of the events I'll even end up going to. From the programme, my personal picks for Music Week would be Dead Disco: Classic songs from beyond the grave at Katy Daly’s on 30 October (Free), The Pigeon Detectives at Mandela Hall on Friday 4 November (£15) and Vintage: classic tracks at Lavery’s Back Bar on 4 November (Free). However I'm already otherwise occupied on those dates so I may have to see what else is available. There really does seem to be something for everyone though, whether you're into lambeg drums, rock or dubstep.

I wonder how the organisers are feeling about the whole thing. This is a massive publicity opportunity for Belfast, which could be great for things like tourism, but there is also the intrinsic risk that if something goes awry we end up looking like the backwards little city that wasn't quite up to the job. As a city we're getting used to holding big multi-venue festivals now (e.g. Arthur's Day, Culture Night and the Belfast Film Festival, amongst others) but generally speaking the target audience are locals and the occasional visitor. It's a rare occasion when our city is the centre of attention for millions of people around the world. The pressure to put on a good show is bound to be at an all-time high… is Belfast up to the challenge?

I certainly hope so because I for one am proud of my wee city and want to disprove to the rest of the world any outdated misconceptions they may have about it. So I hope that Lady Gaga and her ilk have a wonderful time here and that the whole thing goes without a hitch. And if not… well, the show must go on!

Monday, 17 October 2011

Grow up? But I don't wanna!

It seems as though everyone around me is growing up. People I went to school with or worked with are all off buying houses and having babies and the like and my Facebook news feed won't let me forget about it. Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy for them all, but as a married woman of child-bearing age I must admit it does tend to pile on the pressure somewhat.

The Yorkshireman and I realised a long time ago that we there seemed to be far too many stories out there about people who married young, had babies almost immediately, spent all their time working or being parents and all their money on a mortgage and their offspring, and then suddenly realised at the age of forty that they hadn't done anything they really wanted to do with their lives and had nothing in common with each other any more except for the aforementioned children. "There but for the grace of God…" we thought (well, I did - the Yorkshireman is agnostic teetering towards athiest - but our sentiments were the same).

Hence we decided that whilst marriage would likely only enhance our relationship (which it did - our kitchen is much better equipped after all the wedding gifts we received), that whole financial strife and procreating thing would just have to wait. We both love travelling and had seen disappointingly little of the world, so that became our new mission. Together we've saved hard and have already explored lots of exciting places with a few more ideas in mind for when our savings allow.

People often react a bit oddly when we tell them about our travelling plans, saying things like, "oooh lucky for some!" We don't earn massive amounts of money so I guess people probably wonder how we can afford such luxuries, but in reality it's down to good old fashioned budgeting, saving and planning. Could we afford to fly over to the USA next year if we had a massive mortgage to pay or children to take care of? No, definitely not. But that's the choice we've made and for now we're happy with it. That's not to say that there won't be a mini Yorkshireman or a Friday-loving toddler causing mischief in a few years' time, but for now we have other priorities.

Not everyone "gets" it though. Some people tell me I'm "just right" to not have rushed headlong into years of dirty nappies and tantrums (the latter probably being from me) but they look a bit doubtful as they say it, as if they think we're making a terrible decision but are too polite to say so. Other people tell me reassuringly that I'll "be next", as though they're convinced the reason we have not yet sprogged up must be some kind of medical problem that must not be mentioned.

However the majority of those who genuinely seem to support our decision are those who themselves did not become parents until later in their lives. They say that they're glad they waited until they felt ready for that big step in their life because otherwise they would have regretted not doing what they wanted to do beforehand and would have resented parenthood. That, to me, makes a lot of sense.

Let's face it, being a parent is difficult enough even when you enter it willingly. If you felt like you'd been pressured into it in any way I can only imagine how depressing it would be to try and comfort a colicy baby at 3am, deprived of sleep, the sound of constant crying grating on your last nerve and feeling guilty that even though you know your child is in pain, you can't do anything about it and you just want the thing to shut up already.

Then again perhaps I'm just too aware of the negative side of parenting for it to be particularly attractive right now. My brother was born when I was thirteen (sadly older than some girls who have become mothers) and my sister and I helped take care of him. We sterilised bottles, learned how to make up formula so it wouldn't clump in the teat, fed him, burped him, got covered in vomit, were woken up in the middle of the night when he was teething or sick, were drooled on, laundered a veritible sea of bibs and onesies, picked him up when he hurt himself, comforted him when noisy household appliances frightened him, bathed him, dressed him, fought to get him into his high-chair, jiggled his buggy to try and calm him down when we were out and about and he was overtired and cranky, tried to feed him and then wiped smeared baby food off his cheek when he inevitably turned his face away at the last second...

I'm certain I changed more nappies than my father and I remember wriggling uncomfortably in my chair at school because my back was aching from a night spent walking around the house, stooped over, holding his little hands as he wobbled around learning to walk. Don't get me wrong, I didn't mind most of the time because he was my adorable baby brother and I love him to bits. But, ever the realist, I learned pretty early on that babies are hard work. And he was a good child! I've since worked in a childcare setting and some of those little horrors would have you running off to Google "tubes tied" in about a minute flat! Not to mention that my once adorable baby brother is now a wise-ass, ungrateful fourteen year old emo, so I know how the story ends.

I know there is also the positive side of parenthood. Creating a little version of you and your partner (actually in our case that's fairly terrifying) to love and cherish and feel fiercely protective of. Feeling proud when you see that little person you created learn and grow and turn into an actual human being with their own personality. Seeing them smile at you and tell you they love you. It's all very sweet and lovely. Everyone I know who has become a parent, regardless of how they felt about it beforehand, tells me that you won't understand the overwhelming feelings and emotions until you actually have a child of your own and that they wouldn't change it for the world.

But then again there are statistics that say that 1 in 10 women suffer from post-natal depression. I'm no medical expert but I'm fairly sure that your chances of such things are heightened if you're not entirely secure in your decision to become a mother in the first place. Not to mention the cost of having children. Between clothes and furniture and equipment and childcare and birthdays and Christmasses, etc, etc, it's no wonder there's a debt crisis. Personally I'd rather not take the chance of being depressed and broke right now. Until the Yorkshireman and I both feel ready to inflict a collaboration of our genetics upon the world (be afraid, be very afraid…) I'll be very happy about our procrastination and staunchly defend our right to do so.

In the meantime, please can the rest of the world do me and all other married women of child-bearing age a favour? Should I opt for a non-alcoholic beverage, or put on a bit of weight, or leave work early to go to a doctor's appointment, please do not assume I am knocked up. And beyond that, do not then have the further audacity to look disappointed when you realise you were wrong. When I decide to baby-up, I will let you know. Until then all suggestions are welcome for destinations for our next great adventure - just make sure they have good beer and a child-free spa.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Local Tourist - European Heritage Open Days - Grand Opera House and Hidden History Tour

After the success of our European Heritage Open Day tours the day before, we were very much looking forward to what was in store for us on Sunday. We started the day with breakfast at The Allotment on Upper Queen Street. I had a bacon and pepper omelette and the Yorkshireman had some beans on toast. Being quite plain menu choices, it was pleasant enough if not particularly special, and average value for money. I won't be rushing back for breakfast but I could be tempted to try some of their lunch or dinner dishes at some point in the future. Then it was over to Great Victoria Street for our first tour of the day at the Grand Opera House.

Having grown up in Belfast, I have of course been on the audience side of the house a few times, usually watching warily as May McFettridge pranced around the stage as a pantomime dame. However I'd never been backstage or, to be honest, really had a good look at the inside of the theatre, my main concerns usually being where my seat is, whether the interval ice-cream will come with a little wooden spoon and, in recent years, how expensive the wine is at the bar.

It was an interesting tour for several reasons. For one thing the tour guides were trialling a new tour script, which happened to involve some acting in parts. It was successful in varying amounts at different points throughout but they needed a little more confidence in their delivery methinks. Regardless of their nerves it was all very enlightening though.

We began our tour in the auditorium itself and had a gander at the décor whilst learning about the architect, Frank Matcham. It was a bit of a strange juxtaposition: our imaginations were being transported by our guides back to a packed full theatre in the late 1800s, whilst in our 2011 reality a young technician dude walked around on stage doing a sound check for the matinee performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10… reduced volume because of the lady doing the Heritage tour please… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…" I waved but he didn't seem inclined to wave back. Must be the pressures of the job - counting to 10 is hard, especially in front of so many people.

During the rest of the tour we visited most areas of the theatre, including: backstage (which was a lot smaller than I'd expected); the Baby Grand auditorium (which I'd been in before); stage door on Glengall Street (where they explained how the Opera House had been affected by the bombings of the Europa Hotel next door during "the Troubles"); the bars and restaurants in the recent extension of the theatre; that little conservatory-type room they have right above the (old) main entrance (which apparently used to be a bar back in the old days); and finally the (old) main entrance itself, where I remember coming in for pantomimes etc when I was a bit younger. I would have loved to have seen one of their new dressing rooms but apparently we couldn't because the Joseph people are very strict about that sort of thing. Oh well!

All in all it was an interesting tour. There was a bit too much of this "on the 30th of February 1901, this happened, and then on the 41st of March the following year, this other thing happened" malarkey for my liking. I like the anecdotes but if you start telling me dates every few seconds, I start to zone out. Especially since they saved a lot of that for the end of the tour, by which point we were all standing in the old foyer, tired from walking around for an hour and a half. It might not have been so bad if I'd had the option of a seat. But still, it was a decent tour. If you're interested in the theatre or in architecture it would definitely be worth going on but if, like me, you only have a general passing interest, I would consider how much they're charging before I signed up.

Having luvvied ourselves out, we made our way to the City Hall for the 9/11 memorial ceremony. I've already written about that so I won't go into detail, except to say that it was a sombre and moving interlude for our European Heritage Open Day activities, but I'm glad I went.

Conveniently our next tour actually started from the gates of the City Hall right after the memorial service finished. We were off on a walking tour called 'Hidden history - the past under Belfast's streets'. I must admit right from the off that this, for me, was going to be the least interesting part of our weekend. I'm not all that interested in history in general but the geographical aspect seemed to capture the Yorkshireman's imagination and I have an open mind, so off we went. My nonchalance was not helped by the fact that the tour started ten minutes late, during which delay we had no option but to stand around in the drizzle, bored.

Once we did get going our first stop was Corn Market, where our guide told us (in substantial detail) about three castles that were apparently once built in the area but that no archaeologists have thus far been able to find. I paid attention for about five minutes but by the end of what seemed like three hours of talking about digging (or the clearly disappointing lack thereof), I was slumped over one of Starbucks' outside tables, yawning and willing our group to move on already. At this point I suddenly recalled why I hated history and geography at school.

Eventually we moved on to Ann Street, down one of the entries and out on to High Street. Then it was on to the Cathedral Quarter area. Our guide, with the aid of a rudimentary map of Belfast back in olden days (yes that is as specific as I'm getting), explained throughout what the relevant part of Belfast would have been like at various points in history. Some bits I knew already, e.g. the river Farset used to run right up where High Street is now, and other facts were new to me. However apart from one interesting anecdote about a skull (I won't ruin it for you in case you intend to go on the tour yourself), I must admit I found the whole tour extremely dry.

I guess if you're a real history buff or interested in archaeology it might be up your street but the guide assumed a basic knowledge of local history (which I don't have - who the feck were these "earls" he kept referring to? Actually don't answer, I don't really care anyway) and anything additional he was telling us was told in such a dull way that it went in one ear and out the other. I've been on plenty of tours with historical aspects and despite my lack of interest in the subject at hand, they actually held my interest because they brought it to life with interesting stories. I'm sad to say this tour was not one of these occasions.

I guess I'm not the target demographic for a history tour (being, as I am, an advocate of Barney Stinson's rule that "new is always better") but in my opinion it's definitely not a great example of how to encourage interest in history amongst the general public. In fairness I will say that the Yorkshireman seemed to enjoy it more than I did and I have another friend who apparently has been on it before (although with a different guide) and she liked it, so perhaps take my damnation with a pinch of salt.

So, as we abandoned our guide across the road from St Anne's Cathedral (me feeling giddy like the school bell had just rang at the end of the day), that was the end of our European Heritage Open Day adventures. Some bits were (obviously) better than others but generally I feel like I learned a lot and it was especially interesting to see the parts of such well-known buildings that no-one really gets to see most of the time. I'm already looking forward to next year's brochure so I can go and nosy around some more!

Friday, 7 October 2011

Work hard, play hard

Sorry I haven't updated in a while. I have another "local tourist" post about the European Heritage Open Days in progress but I just haven't had time to finish it off. It's like my employers expect me to actually, like, work for my pay or something, the cheeky beggars.

One piece of brief but happy news however is that the Yorkshireman and I have now set the wheels in motion for our return to the east coast of the USA early next year. By all accounts it'll be absolutely freezing but living in Northern Ireland I'm pretty used to wrapping up warm and carrying an umbrella at all times in the winter months, so it's no skin off my nose. Well, maybe some dry skin if I don't stay moisturised (I recall falling gratefully upon some Palmers Olive Oil hand cream in Duane Reade on our trip last November when my poor extremities started shrivelling up in the cold, dry New York air).

So yes, the flights are booked, hotel rooms are reserved and train tickets between the three cities we'll be visiting (Washington DC, New York and Boston) have been purchased. I cannot wait! The only disadvantage is that my leave from work is now very much limited between now and then, so I imagine I'll be hitting Virgin Atlantic's free "sky bar" pretty hard as soon as the seatbelt sign has been turned off after we leave Heathrow.

Beyond that there's not a great deal of excitement going on right now. The Yorkshireman and I have spent the last two weeks fighting off a nasty cold that's being doing the rounds. Tonight I managed a gym session for the first time since the Sunday before last and was very proud that I not only managed to remain upright and breathing, but also managed to run a 5k. Naturally I'm rewarding myself with copious amounts of wine and pyjamas. Well, today it is Friday yet after all!

Friday, 23 September 2011

The Local Tourist - European Heritage Open Days - Ulster Hall and Parliament Buildings

After we finished our European Heritage Open Day tour of BBC Broadcasting House, we had a bite to eat across the road at Wetherspoons. Then, since we were nearby anyway and the Yorkshireman had never been inside, we popped into the Ulster Hall for a quick nosy around.

The Yorkshireman took some photos and explored the main hall, while I took to the stage and then randomly joined a small group who were being shown the pipe organ by someone who was hopefully an organist but could have alternatively been an overly-eager visitor. It was fun hearing the effects of all the different buttons on the thing resonating around the room.

Eventually we tired of the main auditorium and wandered out the side door and around to the backstage area. However it seems you're not really supposed to do that, as we were promptly escorted away by an indignant-looking security guard. We probably disturbed his coffee break or something. Or perhaps he was watching The Sky At Night. I implemented my innocent look (not very successfully) and said we were just looking around, implying we had gotten lost. I might have been more convincing if I wasn't smirking when I said it. Although it was even funnier when, while we were being shown out (clearly marked as trouble-makers), we came across an elderly couple who had also "lost their way" and were heading backstage. Hehehe. Well they should have put 'no entry' signs up or something!

After the Ulster Hall, we stopped by Apartment, which is my favourite city centre takeaway coffee spot (well, except for Starbucks) and between us went for their coffee and freshly-baked pastry takeaway offer (£1.50 for both - a bargain!). Needless to say I had the coffee and the Yorkshireman enjoyed a delicious-looking chocolate croissant. Then we hopped on the number 20 Metro bus up to Massey Avenue, as our next stop was Parliament Buildings.

I work quite close to Parliament Buildings but had never ventured inside. I wasn't too sure what exactly there would be to see but my curiosity won out and so in we went. Well, first of all we had a bit of a rushed, uphill power walk to get there on time for the last tour at 3pm, but we made it just on time. And then had to wait around for ten more minutes. Typical government inefficiency, eh? Just kidding. Our tour guide was a member of staff who actually works there and it was really interesting to hear his thoughts and anecdotes as we went around.

We started our tour in The Great Hall, which is essentially an ornately decorated lobby. Apparently the centrepiece, a huge German-made golden chandelier, was unofficially gifted to us by the royal family back in wartime (when it was probably not all that appropriate to have German stuff hanging around in the British monarchy's residences) but when they did an inventory after the fire at Windsor Castle back in 1992 and they realised it was missing, they got all huffy about it and wanted it back. The cheek! Eventually it was decided that it could stay in Belfast for now so long as we knew it wasn't for keepsies. Honestly! Like you can't afford to officially gift us a chandelier you didn't even know you had! Bah!

Our tour also covered the Assembly Library, one of the Committee Rooms, the Senate Chamber (which apparently acted as an RAF command centre during World War II!), the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's offices, the Speaker of the Assembly's office, the Assembly Chamber and finally a little café called The Long Gallery, where I happily got another little caffine boost. It was actually a really interesting tour and I learned all sorts of things I didn't know before. For example did you know that during World War II, they painted Parliament Buildings with a mixture of tar and manure to try and conceal it in the darkness and prevent it being bombed in an air-raid? Also that it took seven years to scrape it off, little by little? Imagine if that was your job!

I would highly recommend the tour to anyone who is even vaguely interested in Northern Ireland policitics. It's a great way to see where all the action (or lack thereof) happens and actually, despite the fine dining rooms and unnecessarily ornate offices, it actually serves to humanise government a little. When you see where they eat and sit and walk, it makes the politicians seem like real people rather than media-created characters spouting official lines like a robot. Some of these real people might be fairly up themselves and their opinions may make me cringe, but they're just living, breathing people like the rest of us. That's a pleasing thought but bearing in mind I avenge perceived injustices at the hand of the Yorkshireman by biting him and the fact that my colleague thinks that court cases should be decided by a magic 8 ball, it's also a bit scary.

Anyways, after the tour we made our way down through Stormont Estate, wandering through the trees (and trying not to slip on the mud), down past Mo Mowlam Children's Park and out to the Upper Newtownards Road where, predictably, we just missed a bus. Some time later (when two 4As arrived at once, as is the tradition on the Upper Newtownards Road), we finally made our way home, tired from our exertions but feeling like we'd learned lots and looking forward to learning even more the next day.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Local Tourist - European Heritage Open Days - BBC Broadcasting House

The weekend of 10th and 11th September was a really great couple of days to be a tourist in Northern Ireland, whether you're just visiting or even if you live here. It was time for the European Heritage Open Days, you see. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it's essentially Northern Ireland's contribution to the European Heritage Days programme and takes the form of a weekend once a year where lots of (usually private) heritage sites open for free to the curious public. There are free tours and the likes too. Every year I intend to go and do something and every year I forget completely about it until it's too late to make any plans. However, this year, having enjoyed my recent local tourism adventures, I came prepared!

Being somewhat obsessive with my organisation, I perused the brochure, made a shortlist of the things I wanted to do, and then consulted the (somewhat bewildered but equally intrigued) Yorkshireman about his preferences. Our plan was thus set. In the run up to the events I got booking tickets where required and even went so far as to factor in food and coffee breaks to our busy weekend of sightseeing (well you've got to get your priorities straight!).

First up, as generally happens in your standard weekend, was Saturday, and our first stop of the day was to be a tour of BBC Broadcasting House on Ormeau Avenue. You may recall that whilst we were in London over the summer, we took a tour of BBC Television Centre, so we were interested to see how the local version would measure up. I have to say, it was brilliant… I actually enjoyed it more than the London tour.

First off we went into the studio they use to film Newsline, which is apparently pretty much always set up for that purpose, although everything on the set is easily moveable. We were allowed to sit behind the news desk or, like the Yorkshireman and I did, on the sofas they use for the sports news. I also must admit I had a bit of a play with one of the cameras too. I was interested to find out that the scene of Belfast city centre they show behind the news readers is indeed actually a live feed from a camera on top of the BT Tower, so if you wanted to embarrass someone in a very public way, you could just make a really big banner and put it somewhere in the camera shot. Something to bear in mind for future birthday humiliations (be afraid, friends and family… be very afraid!).

They then took us up to the gallery above the studio and let us sit behind the control desks. People, there were so many buttons and I wasn't allowed to touch any of them! It nearly killed me but somehow I survived. It all looked massively technical and the tour guide describing the jobs of the people who usually sit up there didn't make it seem any less intimidating. I don't think I could cope well with the pressure these people must be under during a live show! I'm happy to be in a job where, for the most part, ctrl + z is available whenever I muck something up, whereas if you mess it up in that room, millions of people are instantly witness to it. Eeek!

Next we went to the BBC 2 continuity room. The guy in control of the room was pretty young and obviously was very competent at his job (a Continuity Director if memory serves). He ushered our tour group of twenty people into his tiny little room and explained briefly what all the different screens and controls were for. It was all very interesting… but then it got even better!

BBC 2 NI was broadcasting the Sinn Fein Conference (ard fheis) live from the Waterfront Hall at the time and it just so happened that, while we were there, it was time for the coverage to end and for the next programme to begin. Continuity Director dude asked us to close the door behind us and make sure our mobile phones were off. Then he cleared his throat, put on some headphones… and started speaking live to the nation, telling them that, later than scheduled in some listings, The Sky At Night was coming up next on BBC 2!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, not only was this cool dude in front of us the actual guy who introduces the programmes, but we got to be there live whilst he did it… twice! There he is, sitting in front of us, speaking into a microphone and fiddling with a computer while every sound he makes and action he takes actually affects what is being displayed and heard on televisions across the country. Calm as you like! With twenty-odd people standing behind him! And then he just takes off his headphones, turns around and nonchalantly explains what he's just done to the order of the programmes on the computer. Like it's no big deal! We all just kinda gawped a little bit.

Oh, well, except for one dumbass old woman. It may not have been immediately obvious that our little room was about to go live on television, but it got to a point when the guy was actually starting to speak when, well, duh. And yet she felt so overwhelmed by the situation that she squeaked, "Oh gracious!" You. Are. Live. On. Air. Be. Silent! Another lady and I both slowly turned and looked at her with some disdain, following which she seemed to realise the error of her ways.

After our silent debut live on BBC 2, we bid adieu to our awesome host, thanking him profusely for letting us stay, and then headed round to the radio studios. Gerry Kelly was doing his Radio Ulster show from the bigger studio on the floor at the time and apparently the one that Stephen Nolan (*shudder*) uses is on a different floor (apparently not for any particular reason but I know I would want to be as far away as possible from him if I worked there), so we only got to see a smaller studio. It was still pretty cool but to be honest I've spent enough time watching the Chris Moyles Show on the red button and the web cams for this wee studio to seem pretty mundane and pedestrian in comparison.

After the radio bit we were all finished with our tour but had had a blast: I would thoroughly recommend the tour (especially if it's free!). Then it was off on our next European Heritage Open Day adventure… onwards!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Bring on the Zamboni: it's hockey time once again!

You may have gathered from some of my previous posts that I'm a bit of an ice hockey fan, although it's really only been the last year or so I've gotten very into it. I felt a strange sense of emptiness when the Stanley Cup Finals finished back in June because I realised that the new NHL season wasn't scheduled to begin until October, which was months away. I'm quite an impatient person and that's just too damn long to wait!

Happily the Elite League couldn't wait that long either and the first Belfast Giants home game against Sheffield Steelers was on Saturday 3 September - yay! So last Saturday, the Yorkshireman, sister dearest and I had a few pre-face-off drinks at home and then headed over to the Odyssey Arena for some pucking good fun.

First face-off of the season

The first thing we noticed was that the drink prices seemed to have increased somewhat at the bar since last year (£4.20 for a small bottle of wine!) and also that they stopped selling Coors Light (probably due to their change of sponsorship from Coors to Stenaline). Neither of these things made us particularly happy but we figured, hey, we were there for a good time, not for a long time, so we sucked it up and bought some more drinkies anyway. We also bought some tickets for the 50/50 competition and a puck each for the chuck-a-puck competition and then settled into our seats for the game.

Die-hard Giants fans seemed to be somewhat disappointed with the team's performance on the night, as apparently was their coach, judging from his decision to cancel their day off in favour of some good hard practisin'. However despite the shortage of goals I don't think it was that bad a game. I've stayed up til 3am to watch worse from the NHL. There was also a disappointing lack of fights or people being smacked up against the plexiglass but it was still entertaining. Sister dearest and I spent most of the game chanting, shouting, singing and screeching. It took about two days for my voice to recover.

After the game (which the Giants lost on a penalty shoot-out) we ventured next door to Rockies Sports Bar in the Odyssey Pavillion, where we finally got some decent (and cheaper) beer to prepare us for the long walk back into the city centre to get the bus home.

I had a great time at the game, even though the Giants lost and I lost the 50/50, chuck-a-puck and also my voice. I absolutely cannot wait to go back again. At £15.50 a ticket I'm afraid I can't quite afford to be a regular, but I'd love to try and get to a game once a month or so.

In the meantime the first New York Rangers game of the season is on 7 October so I'll be frequently checking out the ESPN America listings looking for that first televised game that will keep me up until ridiculous o'clock, waiting with baited breath for the Rangers to score and also to see what delightful outfit Don Cherry has in store for me this time.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Ten years

Ten years ago today. In some ways it seems like a lifetime ago and in others it seems like yesterday.

At work all week we've had conversations about what happened that horrible day, why it happened, what happened afterwards... but none of us were actually there, so it's all based on conjecture and whatever we've read or heard or seen on the thousands of documentaries about the events. But everyone has their own story about where they were and what they were doing when they first heard.

It's one of those breaking news stories of such gravity that you actually remember those details. For older generations the question was always what you were doing when you heard that JFK had been shot, but the only other story of such huge importance in my lifetime was when Princess Diana died. Two events in the course of my life isn't even one a decade, which I guess proves how significantly grave and rare such occasions are.

When the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, I was at school. It was a Tuesday afternoon and I had a music lesson after school on Tuesdays. I remember someone came and told us about it and we followed them back to the little media room we had in the school library to watch it on television. The rest of the school had gone home but there were maybe around ten to fifteen of us stood in that little room, staring at the screen in horror and not really understanding what was going on.

I was seventeen at the time. I was vaguely aware of current affairs but, given the rather delicate state of my own country's political system at the time, not really interested in politics - I reckoned it was just a lot of people arguing about nothing. I think 11 September 2001 was significant enough in my life to change that.

I didn't personally know anyone who died in the attacks (thank God) but it struck me hard that literally thousands of innocent people had just been killed in cold blood. Some people out there felt so strongly about something that they were willing to kill not only themselves but thousands of strangers, just going about their lives. I wanted to know what was so important to them to warrant such action. I guess I understand it better now than I did back then but I will never fully understand it.

In the years since the attacks, I've driven the Yorkshireman mad watching hundreds of documentaries and movies about what happened. I can't really articulately explain why it interests me quite so much but it's such a sad and awful story, and thanks to the media age we can not only hear about it, but see it.

Every time the TV shows that first plane flying into the tower and turning into a fireball, my stomach drops. I can't help but picture how terrified those people on-board the plane must have felt, watching the buildings below get closer and closer and know that there's no where to land - the plane is going to crash at any second. How terrified the people were, trapped above the floors where the plane crashed. The footage shows them waving clothing to try and get attention from the rescuers when, in hindsight, we know it will never come - they too will die. You see people, trapped in a burning, smoke-filled building, driven to the choice of burning alive or jumping out, and horrifyingly choosing the latter.

I am so very grateful that it wasn't me or anyone I know. But the one thing these documentaries do prove is that there are so many people who were directly affected. I can't help but feeling so, so sorry for them. Especially today, ten years on. I can't imagine that time really does much to heal in a situation like this. I would feel angry forever.

When we were in New York last November, we visited St Paul's Chapel, just across from the site. Watching the footage of the buildings collapsing, it's amazing the Chapel wasn't obliterated, but instead it stood proud and served its community in the day after, when people were afraid and confused and mourning. Today it still houses emotional displays of all sorts of memorabilia relating to the events and I would highly recommend spending some time there if you happen to be in New York.

But whilst it's important to remember what happened and to be sad about it, it's also important to move on. You can say what you like about the human race but we're resilient when the going gets tough. That's why I'm really glad about the 9/11 Memorial. It's a fitting tribute to those who sadly lost their lives but also a sign that New York will not be intimidated and that it will dust off its hands and get on with things. Not that it's just about New York of course - it's important to remember those who were lost in Washington DC and the brave passengers on Flight 93 too.

Today Belfast held a memorial service in the grounds of the City Hall. A gospel choir sang comforting songs like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Something Inside So Strong. The Fire Chief from New York's Fire Department sent us a message thanking Belfast for its support fundraising in the days after the attacks. There was a minute's silence to mark the time the first plane flew into the first tower. The Yorkshireman and I were there. It felt like a nice way to mark the occasion and I'm glad I went. It was nice to see people gathered together purely in the name of support and comfort for a change. I hope those who were affected by those awful events ten years ago do take comfort from all those who send their sympathy. We are so, so sorry for your loss.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Belfast Foodie Chronicles - Victoria Square Meal for One

I've spent my last couple of posts reliving the tastes and textures of my recent bank holiday foodie tour through Belfast city centre and the surrounding area. You see, I don't get to go and try out all the new treats in town very often, partly because I can't afford it but mainly because the Yorkshireman, being a Yorkshireman, gets all itchy when I suggest that we spend money actually eating out somewhere. Therefore if he is with me I can only rarely subject him to such tortures.

Happily for me but not for him, he had to work on the last bank holiday and I didn't, so I had planned a day of indulging at my own whim, taking advantage of the only "alone time" I anticipated for the foreseeable future. However when he declared he was also off on night out with his workmates, I got another unexpected opportunity to explore what culinary delights the city had to offer.

Unfortunately money and time were both in short supply at the time, so my options were a little limited. It had to be dinner because I had a Crusaders match to get to later than evening so wouldn't have time to eat anything else beforehand, and given my time and cost constraints it had to be somewhere in the city centre and preferably not much more than £10 in total. Challenge accepted!

I actually lucked out a little because I found a voucher online for Pizza Express where I could get 40% off any main meal, so I decided, hey why not? I always jump at the chance to get pizza when I'm not dining with the Yorkshireman because, as I've mentioned before, he has inexplicably taken agin' pizza (the weirdo) so we don't eat in pizza restaurants very often. I, however, have eaten far too many garlic dough balls and imbibed far too much drinkable red wine at the Pizza Express on Bedford Street with my friends over the years but for some reason I've never been to the Victoria Square restaurant. Time to change that!

The Victoria Square Pizza Express actually has a completely different vibe than the Bedford Street one. Bedford Street is quite definitely pretty upmarket, full of young professionals on dates or enjoying a leisurely night out with friends. It is family-friendly and you can bring children, but I have to say I've rarely seen many there, especially in the evening. However Victoria Square was different. For one thing you can dine outside, although only one family seemed to be taking them up on the offer (it was pretty chilly). Inside there seemed to be two different areas: in the back there were little tables for smaller groups, where younger couples seemed to be grabbing a quick bite to eat on their way to doing something more exciting; whereas at the front there were big tables full of families cutting pizza into bite-sized pieces and battling with spaghetti. It was kind of like two different restaurants squished into one, both of which were completely different than it's sister restaurant across town.

Being a loner for the evening, I was sat at one of the tables in the back beside the cash register and promptly ordered myself a large glass of red wine and an American (pepperoni) pizza. They arrived pretty quickly and I munched my way through my pizza and sipped my wine with one hand whilst playing on my smartphone with the other. Well, you've got to have some kind of entertainment if you're dining alone. It's either that or give the evil eye to any small children that might be staring at you for no apparent reason. I did both.

The pizza wasn't bad - a little lacking in toppings but if my recollections are correct that's always been the case with Pizza Express. I'd rather have a Domino's pizza, or actually preferably my favourite frozen pizza (Chicago Town Takeaway sauce-stuffed pizza nomnomnom), but for a quick dinner out and about it was ok. At 40% off it was a bargain too and my whole bill came in at £10.32 for the whole pizza and a large glass of wine. I think next time I would actually head back to Little Wing though and try one of their whole pizzas instead - the prices are similar and it's good to support local enterprise.

The pizza and wine might have been gone but I had another cunning plan that meant dinner wasn't over. Yogen Früz opened in Victoria Square a few months ago and ever since I had been hearing tales of the expensive but delicious frozen yoghurt within.

I'd first tried frozen yoghurt in the USA when I was about eleven years old and always actually preferred it to ice-cream but it wasn't really available over here until recently. Even now whilst you can buy Ben and Jerry's frozen yoghurt, I can only ever find flavours that somehow incorporate chocolate, which doesn't really work for me. So the addition of Yogen Früz to the Belfast snack scene was good news indeed.

I must admit I found it all a bit confusing. Some things are on a big menu board (like set combinations) and other things (like the list of toppings) aren't. I wasn't quite sure how or what to order and I'm sure I came across as a total dork, but the friendly server dude helped me through it. I ended up with a medium tub of non-fat frozen yoghurt topped with blueberries and strawberries (so I could kid myself it was "healthy"), which cost something like £3.75.

I found it a bit of an odd taste to start with. It sounds obvious in retrospect but it actually just tasted like plain yoghurt, whereas I think the frozen yoghurt I've had before was probably loaded with sugar, so I had been expecting it to be sweeter. However once I got over that initial surprise, I found myself quite enjoying it. The strawberries and blueberries gave it a sweet edge anyway but it was quite refreshing to have a dessert that didn't taste like a sugar overload. I'm torn about the price though. On one hand you could buy a whole pint of luxury ice-cream in the supermarket for the price of one of these tubs. On the other hand if you were having dessert in a restaurant you would expect to pay anywhere between £3-5 anyway. I guess it's another entry on the "occasional treat" list for me but definitely worth trying at least once.

While I was at Victoria Square I also bought a little treat to take home. Hotel Chocolat opened near the William Street South entrance of Victoria Square a wee while back and people I knew were raving about it. Clearly people with more money than I have because I decided to purchase a little box of six white chocolate strawberry creams and it cost me £3.50 - yikes!

Later I sampled them whilst watching TV and I have to say they were absolutely delicious. White chocolate can have a tendency to be too sickly if you get the balance of sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla wrong, but these were pretty much perfect. Still very sweet, don't get me wrong, especially with the strawberry cream filling, but I managed all six without a problem and was sad when they ran out. I won't be rushing to spend that much on chocolate again any time soon but next time I want to treat myself or someone else, I'll know where to go!

Thus my cheapie foodie adventure ended on a sweet note, leaving me satisfied but yet wanting more. Now, what to try next..?