Flying coach from Los Angeles to Europe is sure to bring out your most primitive instincts. Jammed into the back of a giant airplane with only a few square inches to yourself for almost eleven hours, you become completely aware of every molecule that is in your personal space. Your senses become heightened to the point that you can detect the slightest movement of the people around you – the knee of your seatmate slowly encroaching on your so-called leg room, the seat of the guy in front of you moving back a millimeter as he adjusts his legs, the woman behind you trying to put her tray back into the upright (and locked) position. Like a tribesman who is fighting for every inch of his territory, you’re battling it out for the ability to have your elbow on the arm rest.
It’s amazing to me that we pay so much money to travel in so much discomfort. It’s horrifying to me that the trip to Europe is so much damn longer from LAX than it was from JFK; when you’re flying from New York to London the point of the flight where you start to go totally mad from lack of sleep and physical pain is just before the plane descends over England. When you’re flying from California it’s just at the point when you’re clearing the East Coast of the United States… and still have five hours ahead of you.
Somehow I managed to survive the flight, which left sunny Los Angeles and refound the light somewhere south of Greenland, but by the time we got to Heathrow, my head was a muddled mess of exhaustion. I hadn’t gotten a moment of sleep on the flight, despite buying Tylenol PM in an effort to force myself to conk out (I just cannot sleep on planes. I don’t know how people sleep sitting up) – I opted to not take the pills because I was afraid of getting to Heathrow and being essentially stoned; you go through security a second time at Heathrow, and I imagined being zonked would be a good way of getting myself detained.
At Heathrow I rendezvoused with some of the other journalists who would be on the trip, and we boarded our connecting flight to George Best Belfast City airport. The best way to describe to you what sort of airport Belfast City is is to tell you that my first Irish smell was cow shit. Which isn’t a bad thing, since it just meant that we were in a green and rural place.
At Heathrow I had been telling Stax from IGN that he had to stay awake and power through until 10pm local time – that would make sure his body clock was properly tuned. I, of course, couldn’t take my own advice and fell asleep minutes after checking into the hotel at about 6pm.
When I woke up it was still dark. I had missed the big dinner where Fox Walden took out all the journalists for Guinness and traditional Irish tapas* and the first pub crawl from the intrepid travelers who dared to stay awake for 26 hours straight. We didn’t have to meet for a few hours, so I decided to jaunt off into Belfast and see what the city held for me.
It’s important to be aware that there’s pretty much no way for me to explain to you just how beautiful everything in Ireland is, even the cities. Hell, the run down areas even have a picaresque quality that makes them charming. I had a mini-mission on my walk – go to Argos and get a power adaptor, since my shitty hotel had none available** – but I had hours to kill and just wanted to walk through the streets of the city. The first thing I noticed was that the Irish don’t place much stock in street signs. Every now and again you’d find a tiny street sign bolted to the side of a building, but often you’d have to sort of guess at where you were from moment to moment. The good news is that Belfast is so small it didn’t seem to matter – a ten minute walk from my hotel in the center of town brought me to the outskirts of urban life, with just rolling green hills before me.
Belfast was just waking up as I rambled through its streets and alleys. At one bus stop I found the detritus of the night before: a Guinness glass left on a bench with a tiny drop of the black stuff inside. After walking for a while I finally found a Starbucks, which was tucked inside a giant shopping mall near the Argos. It wasn’t that I was looking for Starbucks but rather that I find myself noting them when traveling; as horrible as Bucharest was, I was impressed by the utter lack of the coffee chain.
I finally got my adapter and headed back to the hotel, where I rejoined the group to head to the first day of the set visit. Fox Walden had structured the visit well: on day one we’d tour the sets and talk to the director, Gil Kenan, and the production and costume folks, while on the morning of day two we’d return for a quick talk with the talent. Unfortunately Bill Murray and Tim Robbins had wrapped already, but we got the legendary Martin Landau, so who can complain.
The set itself is on the site of an abandoned shipyard where the Titanic was built. That big leaky boat is a sort of big point of pride for Belfast, which seems weird, until you remember the other thing they’re famous for is decades of terrorism and civil war. Besides, as one of the people behind the current effort to resurrect that shipyard into a hip, high tech quarter said, ‘It was fine when it left us. You can’t blame us for an English driver.’ Fair enough.
After a full day wandering the impressive sets of The City of Ember (more on that in my forthcoming set report), we headed back to the hotel to regroup, not use the internet and freshen up. We had a mission ahead of us: get out into the city and get fucked up. Luckily there was a nice pub right down the block from our hotel, and we decided to begin the night there; we ended up closing the place out. The pub was Katy Daly’s, and while it was next to some gross music venue that attracted all of Belfast’s Hot Topic punks, the pub itself was a nice demographic of people in their 20s and 30s, and not too crowded. It was there that I had my first Guinness in Ireland and began my journey to becoming one of those douchebags who goes on and on about how the Guinness doesn’t taste the same in America (that epic journey was completed at the Gravity Bar atop the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin). It was also at Katy Daly’s that I learned why you don’t see a lot of Irish drinking Guinness at pubs – that shit takes forever to pour, so you have to be ordering your next pint halfway through your first one. Since Guinness goes down like mother’s milk that isn’t too much of a problem, but as the night went on my ability to think that far ahead was challenged.
Katy Daly’s also offered me my first taste of the exceptional Irish friendliness. I’m not a friendly person by nature – I’m guarded and sort of anti-social with new people – so the way that an Irish person would just interject themselves into my conversations took me aback. I would switch immediately into ‘What does this guy want from me’ and ‘Hey, I’m not gay’ mode, which was totally inappropriate. These people are just incredibly chill and friendly, and luckily I had other friendlier Americans with me who helped bridge the gap between my them and my initial mistrust.
The night at Katy Daly’s is a blur. I do know that there were two enormous, greasy fat women at the bar in rugby jerseys, and we began joking about how a certain journalist – known for his unsuccessful game throwing – would go mack on those two. Jokes turned to stunning reality a couple of minutes later as he was at the bar, all up on these beasts. I couldn’t get close enough to eavesdrop (I was busting a gut laughing), but I understand he was doing the whole, ‘I’m here visiting a movie set and meeting celebrities’ thing, which actually doesn’t work as well with women as we shallow, uninteresting journalists would hope.
It was this pointing and laughing at the fat women and their unfortunate suitor that hooked us up with the boys who would epitomize Irish friendliness to us… a friendliness one of us would betray! While this would be a good spot to place a ‘To be continued,’ I’m determined to wrap up this whole night in one piece, so maybe go get a soda or use the toilet to create your own cliffhanger moment.
Anyway, we met these three fellas at the next table: Mark, Barry and a guy whose name apparently really was Neal Diamond, and he was the seventh Neal Diamond in his family. For some of the people on our trip Neal Diamond became a kind of avatar of cool, and by the next night I was so sick of hearing his name I wanted certain (supposedly straight male) journalists to stuff Neal’s dick in their mouth just so I could get a moment away from ‘Neal Diamond, Neal Diamond, Neal Diamond!’ These three guys took us under their wing, and when Katy Daly’s closed took us back to their house. When you’re walking through the dark streets of an unfamiliar city with a bunch of strangers you can’t help but get all Eli Roth in your head. We outnumbered them, of course, but most of our group was women, and one of them was so drunk that I was effectively carrying her the whole way. It didn’t help that she opted to wear stilettos.
A word on this woman, who would become the center of much drama that evening and the next day: while we had been hanging with Mark, Barry and Neil Diamond, she had found herself a couple of chavs to hang with. This woman, a small, thin Los Angeleno, couldn’t have seemed like she’d have less in common with these football hooligan motherfuckers, one of whom looked like a monkey while the other looked exactly like the pale fat chav from Little Britain. ‘Does your friend have an ugly man fetish?’ Mark asked me. I found out that while the English call these guys chavs, in Belfast they’re spides (a moment of brogue-related hilarity: Barry says, ‘I don’t know why they’re called spides.’ To which I replied, ‘Well, that’s a term for black people in America.’ You have to read it in the accent), while in Glasgow they’re NEDs: Non-Educated Delinquents. That last one was my very favorite epithet for these types of douchebags. Anyway, we were a little concerned, since while we didn’t know her, she seemed to be in a prime rape situation and I guess you’re supposed to keep people from getting raped whenever you can. Barry, a big dude in a Che shirt***, said he’d have our back if it came to a fight, but I was pretty worried – the Irish and British fight for kicks, and they’re good at it. Even with Barry on our side, I anticipated a good knocking on the skull.
Luckily, it didn’t come to that, although the two NEDs wouldn’t lay off her. Demolished by drink, she headed to the house with us.
There was more drinking at the house, but no weed. Mark told us that you could get E or coke with no problem in Belfast, but weed was almost impossible. When the drinks ran out, Mark placed a call and a half hour later a black cab filled with booze showed up. ‘You can get anything delivered in a cab, if you know the right people,’ he told me. This was a city I could love.
The politics of Northern Ireland remain touchy at best. As an American with Irish heritage, I grew up supporting the struggle of the republicans and the IRA. Mark and Barry were Irish but not from Belfast, and they seemed to feel the same way. ‘You’re a real Sinner,’ Barry told me, meaning Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, and to me that was a transcendent compliment. Of course the truth can be slippier than we like, and after I ran my photo set of Belfast’s Troubles spots where I referred to the IRA as freedom fighters, I got an earful from Irish readers and some Irish friends, including the lovely and often right Helen O’Hara from Empire. I guess I’ll ponder this more in the next installment of the travelogue, but at the time this compliment got me high as a kite – here I was in Belfast being told by a real Irishman that I was proper Sinn Fein material.
There was music, there was drinking, there was laughing, and once again there was macking. I won’t name all the macktacular parties, as some of the people involved have significant others, but I will say that one of them was that apocalyptically drunk girl, who made her way through the house getting all up in every guy’s shit. When it was my turn she grabbed my hand and took me upstairs: ‘Tell me all your secrets!’ We had a nice talk but nothing happened, much to the chagrin of the people standing on the next landing down, listening in. They even sent someone up with a camera to catch us in a clinch.
While all of this was going on, another member of our group had gotten Mark’s cellphone and had sent a mass text message to all of his contacts. All of them. And it was something dirty (memories fail at this point), which probably made his mother pretty excited. I did find out the next night that his girlfriend was unhappy about the 3am text message. Of course Mark didn’t know about it that evening, so when the night ended we were told to come to the place where he worked as a music promoter and he would hook us up.
The walk to their house had seemed infinite, although Mark and Barry always claimed they lived ‘right up the road’ and ‘just a couple of blocks away.’ This is what they call being a ‘country man,’ who always estimates that everything is a fifteen minute walk – I have something of this in me, and have taken people on insane walks in Manhattan while insisting we were ‘almost there’ every half mile. But the ride back in the cab was quick, and we stumbled out in front of the Radisson Piece of Shit at 4 in the morning. Drunk Girl was first out, and she made a beeline for a guy standing in front of the hotel, a guy none of us had ever seen before. While we dealt with the cab fare and everything, she chatted with the guy and they went inside together. I saw them getting on the elevator and then… no one saw her until the next night. She says that nothing happened, and I tend to believe her, but you know how tongues will wag. And they got waggier when our Fox Walden chaperone made a phone call to her room at 9:45 in the morning as we waited to go to set and heard only a rustling of sheets and the dropping of a phone. No other calls to her would be answered all day.
*Actually, we later had a traditional Irish stew, which was miserable, so yay for Spanish food.
** Also not available: The internet.
*** Some of the Irish love Che. I saw shirts with his face that said: ‘Shea. Alive and well in Eire.’