Belfast and Belgium

To describe the last few weeks as a “whirlwind” would be a bit of an understatement. I’m writing this blog post near Gate 22 at the Brussels South Charleroi Airport waiting on my red eye flight back to Dublin.  This has been one of my first chances to organize my thoughts, which I’ll try to do quickly before Ryanair Flight 43 leaves Belgium without me.

Two weeks ago, I made the six-hour trek to Belfast for our spring retreat. Seeing Belfast firsthand and walking past the walled interfaces has been something I’ve looked forward to since arriving in Ireland. We spent our first day exploring the city and delving into its politics and social divides. In the morning, we met with two Ministers at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. As we learned, politicians in the North always come in pairs: Unionists and Republicans. That afternoon, Dom Bryan of Queens University Belfast took us on a tour of the peace murals and divided neighborhoods of Belfast. Previously, Belfast looked to me just like any other industrial city. Yet walking past buildings and memorials exalting paramilitary units and seeing the multi-story walls designed to deter future violence drove home the point that I had found myself in a truly unique place where the wounds of the recent past have yet to completely heal.

One particular mural stood out to me as a reminder of home: a painting on a Nationalist peace wall calling for the presidential pardon of Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist serving two life sentences since 1977. Though I knew Peltier’s case had been placed on Amnesty International’s list of “Unfair Trials” and serves as a point of contention among the Indian community, I did not expect to see such a powerful tribute 4,116 miles from the Pine Ridge Reservation. To anyone who is unfamiliar with the 1975 shootout at Pine Ridge, its aftermath, or the American Indian Movement, I suggest watching this powerful overview of Peltier’s story: Incident at Ogala: The Leonard Peltier Story.

The next day consisted of a trip around the Antrim Coast to the incredible natural wonders of Northern Ireland, mainly Giant’s Causeway and Carrick a Rede Island. The wild beauty of the land and coast provided a sharp contrast to the rough industrial feel of urban Belfast. Standing on the point of the Grand Causeway watching the waves crash into the rocks and spitting out sea foam definitely served as a clear, “Woah, I’m really here” moment.

As I said earlier, I’m writing this post from an airport bench in Belgium. Belgium has long been on my European bucket list, though I must say that I never actually imagined having the opportunity to be here. Belgium plays a pretty sizable role in my life. I suppose you could say a Belgian family is why I get the chance to be here today. On October 18, 1944, my grandfather’s P-51 was struck by flak during his 64th fighter mission and he was forced to bail out over what he thought was behind enemy lines. He landed in a tree, breaking his back and leg. Luckily, my grandfather, who was only 21 years old at the time, had bailed out over Belgium, where a young girl helped him out of the tree and took him to a farmhouse in a wheelbarrow, where he remained until Allied forces discovered his location and returned him to a hospital.

I tried my best to find the exact location of the farm where my grandfather landed, but could not. Nevertheless, I have always wanted to come back to the place where Lieutenant Tom Tipps’s military career ended, and it’s been an amazing trip. I’ve not had a map since arriving, so I spent my first day exploring Brussels, a relatively young European capital, looking at the contrasting building styles of 18th century Flemish architecture and the state of the art European Parliament complex. I must say, I prefer the stone and towering golden spires of old Brussels to the glass and granite of the newer parts of town. Next, I walked the canals of Ghent, where I tried the world’s greatest dark chocolate covered waffle, and wandered through the medieval alleys of Bruges, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting and home to the Frietmusum. Finally, I finished my trip at Antwerp, a more upscale city, where I walked through the gallery at Rubenshuis and marveled at Gutenberg Bibles in the Museum Plantin-Moretus. Belgium had so much more to offer, but I was short on time and, sadly, missed out on visiting Bastogne, Waterloo, or one of the famed Trappist breweries.

With that, it looks like I have about three minutes to scarf down a quick breakfast and join the boarding queue for my flight. My adventures will continue next week, though I’ll be back on the American side of the Atlantic visiting Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. I’ll miss Galway, but man, I cannot wait to feel desert sun again.

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