Northern Ireland from the Perspective of an Eighteen Year Old American: Part One
Laughter erupted when my colleague introduced me. Not being overly confident in the first place, I was alarmed. What faux pas had I committed? I hadn’t opened my mouth yet so it couldn’t be my southern accent. Then the kids began to shout, “Tom & Jerry, Tom & Jerry!” Now I understood, they were obviously well studied in American cartoons. That the minister I was working with was named Tom and I was named Geri (Jerry) struck the children as very funny. This was one of many enlightening experiences I had in the country of Northern Ireland.
My maternal grandmother who lived with my family had objected strenuously to my Dad “letting that child fly all by herself to a foreign country.” Daddy only increased her anxiety by replying that there would be lots of other people on the plane! He was obviously much too flippant concerning her only granddaughter’s welfare. But the flights were uneventful that is until I reached Glasgow. There I exited the 747 jet that had brought me across the Atlantic Ocean and stepped back in time as I boarded a prop plane that looked as if it had been left over from World War II. My anxiety over the age and condition of my mode of flight only increased when I saw the steward; he was definitely of World War II vintage or at least it seemed so to my youthful eyes. The flight though turned out to be safe and comfortable and included the bonus of an in-flight snack of the most wonderful Scottish shortbread I’ve ever had. Soon we were landing in Belfast.
I Thought They Spoke English!
The airport was Spartan with evidently no concern for impressing tourists or comforting returning Northern Irelanders. I guess it was all the better for enforcing security in this country known for its violent acts in the age old battle between Catholics and Protestants. Thankfully I was welcomed warmly by the father and daughter of my host family, the Browns. The score: Zero for facilities, ten for hospitable hosts!
On the drive from the airport to Dundonald, the Brown’s home town, I discovered that Mr. Brown spoke a foreign language. His daughter, Doreen, was totally understandable to me as far as the actual words were concerned, but what was a lorry? After listening closely and after several miles I began to catch a word or two of English as spoken by Mr. Brown. He just spoke a lot faster than my Southern drawl-accustomed ears were used to deciphering. I had to learn to listen faster but even then his accent lost some words to my understanding. Not to worry, I knew from the tone and the words I did get that I was going home with a very caring family.
A Historical Cottage We Visited
My, the country was quaint. Everything was on such a small scale, the cars, the houses, the yards and even the streets, so narrow and close to the buildings, fences and homes. I began to realize just how new the soon to be 200 year old USA was compared to this place which had hosted civilization for thousands of years.
Mrs. Brown was the epitome of the cheery, efficient housewife. Her home was warm and inviting though a little on the busy side of decorating to my experience. Every surface had pattern. Floral wallpaper, a different floral in the carpet with geometric borders, a fair amount of bric-a-brac and more and different florals in the draperies. Even the furniture was efficient. No dining table was apparent anywhere. Then just in time for tea what I had supposed was a small chest transformed into a totally accommodating and comfy dining surface!
I had heard of the occasion called tea of course. It should include tea, a given, crumpets, scones and maybe tiny cucumber sandwiches. So when Mrs. Brown called us in for tea it was not what I had envisioned as “tea.” This spread qualified as a meal. There was boiled meat, boiled potatoes, boiled beans and bread with butter. The food was good but definitely bland. I came to find that bland was very much the best description of most of the Northern Ireland cuisine I experienced.
Tea with the Browns
Hot tea did not appeal to this sweet iced tea drinking Georgia girl. I did try it. I didn’t want to be a difficult house guest but I just couldn’t handle hot tea and it was even worse with milk. Yuck! So I compromised. I would mix just the right amount of sugar into my cup of hot tea, place it in the refrigerator and then drink it when it was well chilled. My hosts found this amusing and strange. But it was also way too little of a good thing with too much of a wait. I was used to always having a pitcher of sweet tea waiting in the fridge with plenty of ice available in our large side-by-side refrigerator-freezer.
The Browns refrigerator was probably not a fourth the size of the fridge I had left at home. It was what we in America considered a dorm room or efficiency apartment size and ice cubes for drinks were unheard of in this home. It was quite comic to me when at the occasion of a graduation dinner for Doreen and her classmates at a restaurant a pitcher of water was placed on the table and the girls went wild fishing the ice cubes out and consuming them leaving the water iceless!
I was eighteen. The year was 1976. So began the adventure of a lifetime