Pt. II: The Stones of Paris

An Ulsterman in Paris, continued.

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Pt. I: The Stones of Paris

“When our children were old enough to take an interest, but still relatively biddable and portable, we went on several trips to Paris in the hope that this would inoculate them in favour of France and give them a graceful ease with both the city and the language in later life. This worked in a limited way… the children acted as a permanent absurdist pint-size John Bull chorus, applying our island common sense to everything from the Sainte-Chapelle to Picasso, with one of the latter’s works actually provoking a low whistle of respect at what he had ‘got away with’. All this thoroughly destroyed the frail pretence my wife and I shared that we were somehow a sort of Belmondo-Seberg team crazily adrift in a city of alcohol & danger.”

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Falls & Shankill: I figured it made sense, building me a fence

Recently I was telling a Italian friend about a few of the scrapes in which members of my extended family back in Belfast sometimes get involved. She was delighted and proclaimed them to be proper South Italians. This got me wondering whether one could make a case for the UK as a mirror image of Italy; London would be Milan, the hip metropolis and financial powerhouse. The UKIP-leaning Home Counties stand in for the Lega Nord provinces between the northern cities, grumbling about their taxes subsidising the poor folk at the other end of the country. As a basket case of institutionalised criminality Northern Ireland could only be Sicily, and West Belfast the mafia strongholds of Palermo.

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Londonderry: Iron Maiden

Kosovo is said to pose a problem for Serbian identity. In 1389, it was in the fields of Kosovo that Serbia’s Christian princes and knights gathered to make a last stand against the more powerful Ottomans; they died fighting to defend their land and the legend sustained them through centuries of rule from Istanbul. Kosovo gets called the “Serbian Jerusalem”. It is central to their idea of who they are; and inconveniently, today Kosovo’s population is over 90% Muslim Albanian. Making it a fully Serbian land for Serbian people would involve warfare and mass expulsions on a scale seldom seen since Stalin carved up his winnings- it’s not going to happen. Parallels could be drawn with Northern Ireland’s second city, Londonderry (‘Derry’ in everyday speech unless one is a nitpicking Unionist). 1689’s Siege of Derry, just before the Battle of the Boyne, is integral to Protestant folklore. It has bequeathed it a motto and a mentality in “No Surrender”, as well as the idea of the duplicitous “Lundy” who must be expelled from the body politic, and which the egregious DUP exploited to bring down any leader willing to countenance compromise; O’Neill, Faulkner, Trimble. Shifting demographics and intimidation having done their thing on the Irish border, the city is now 25% Protestant and almost all those Protestants have gathered Waterside, across the river from the city centre, to the point where anyone who insists on calling it ‘Londonderry’ on the Cityside is probably quite brave.

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Belfast: it’s a country that’s changing

Whilst visiting Trieste, one day I had lunch at a small and very old-school seafood restaurant hidden round the back of San Giusto hill. The staff were curious to know where I came from, and when I responded with Northern Ireland the chef was called out. He excitedly told me he had been travelling throughout Scotland and Ireland, and that Belfast had been “the big surprise” of his holiday, for its “fantastic architecture” and because “we Triestin are also drunkards”. Not what one might expect to hear, but I can see why Belfast might have resonated with him. There used to be these vast empires, and as the empires have vanished, so has the raison d’etre of many of their cities -without Habsburg patronage, Trieste went from the 2nd busiest port in the Mediterranean to the 12th busiest in Italy- but their now purposeless grand buildings are still there.

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