Northern Ireland

Adrian Leeson is a car dealer, his wife Rebekah a crafts teacher, their little boy Sebastian a budding junior squash star and his little sister Amelia a playful gymnast-to-be with a knack for freestyle dancing. The Belfast Open would be my third of four tournaments in a row, Northern Ireland my fourth country stop in four days of planes trains and minibuses. Landing in the countryside on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, I needed something more than squash. And that's when the Leeson family and their friends on Cypress Avenue in East Belfast came to the rescue. 

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When I think of what makes travelling special, I think of the people you meet. When I think of the people you meet I think of the ones who grab your arm and fling you into their world and give you a slice of their lives: their good and their bad, ups and downs, interesting and mundane. It's cliche to say it but at the end of the day the place you go is far less relevant than the people you're around once there. If they pull you up a chair at the dinner table, make room for you in the family car and help you figure out how the stove works - if they do all those things and then some, if they truly make their home yours... well for me at least, that when you've found yourself experiencing the joy of travel.

English tea awaited us on the table as we walked into the Leeson home. "Bacon and toast sandwich?" offered up with a smile by Rebekah, greeting me in the kitchen before I dropped my bags. I dreaded giving the awkward mention that I was gluten-free. Silence. Rebekah, keeping her smile, brainstormed how to deal with this curveball on the fly. Six year-old Amelia looked up curiously, mid-cartwheel on her gymnastics mat next to the oven. From the couch Seb stared on with ten-year old wonder: Who turns down bacon and toast? The American standing in the kitchen does. Who eats gluten-free in Northern Ireland? Me...and maybe just me.

But Rebekeh audibled smoothly and over a pile of bacon and (gluten-free) eggs the family told me the colored history of the city, the tensions that still linger today between Protestants and Catholics over just about everything - neighborhoods to live, pubs to visit, even taxi cabs to take. On a drive through town, Adrian would point out where not to walk around at night: streets of Catholic homes bearing green and gold colors directly facing rows of Protestant townhouses just feet away, shatterproof casings over their windows (just to be safe) and the flag of Great Britain swaying valiantly overhead. The tension was real, the complicated history still very much alive. 

If playing St. Andrews is a must for any golf fanatic, playing at clubs like the Belfast Boat Club should be the same for any squash nut. It's places like Northern Ireland that give the sport it's character: where the local talent is revered, legends are remembered, traditions live on for decades through the heavy concrete courts and creaking grandstands of the vintage club. Sitting along worn wooden benches next to their lockers in the changing room, gray haired seniors trade match recaps in nearly indeciperhable Irish accents, as they likely have for the last fifty years. On the stools at the bar, regulars share the latest sport gossip - who's beating who, who's playing well, who's moving back to the club - over pints, and more pints, of Guinness. 

Everyone is good. The pilot, the school teacher - all amateurs with day jobs who hop on court after work in North Belfast and turn in games at a near professional level. Adrian introduced me to his buddy Jeff, a local bank manager around fifty with that dead-on, dry sense of humor and an avid doubles player who, at first glance, makes you wonder just how he can cover the court in his hefty, towering frame. Jeff suggested a game of doubles and while it's a different game than singles, I wasn't too worried. Wrong. I spent the next forty-five minutes chasing Jeff's arching lobs and dying cross court drops, desparately fetching the ball hit from a bellowing hearty laugh standing amused in the back of the court. For anyone watching the spectacle, it was unclear who was the pro and who was the bank manager. 

 Jeff the playing partner, local bank manager, life of the party  

Jeff the playing partner, local bank manager, life of the party  

The family lived in a cozy townhouse off the tree-lined Cyprus Avenue, the charming street in East Belfast that inspired a young Van Morrison years ago. Coming home was like taking a time machine to suburban America in the '50s. Kids playing in the streets, doors unlocked, dogs tiptoing past the flowers on the sidewalks and in front of our home, a big RV in the driveway that the family had purchased the day before I arrived for future vacations. Adrian ferried me and the other players to and from the club, coaching kids and giving pointers in between, grabbing a pint with older members if he had a minute. He adored the sport was the godfather of the club, both the maitre'd and city mayor wrapped into one, a gem of a guy who I was lucky to meet through the tour and will see again and again with long after my pro days are done.

With spare time I'd take out the dog Jack for a walk around the neighborhood, at night we all cooked stir fry and grilled fish and sat around the table and on the couch, chatted over the squash tournament or the local gossip of the day, figured out who would take who to school when the kids started up again the next week. Rebekah got a kick out of shopping gluten free, and soon I had my own little corner of the kitchen: gluten free pastas, breads, bagels. Friends and neighbors dropped in to meet the visiting squash pros, and Rebekah got a bigger kick extending the now joke with every introduction ("This is Mike: he's gluten free!") just to see the reactions from her Irish neighbors (silence, confusion, another moment of awkward silence, "Sorry to hear that, Mike..."). 

One night big Jeff took a couple of the South African players and me to his favorite Chinese restaurant in town, took care of the ordering with his buddy the owner and made sure we feasted on only the best Chinese cuisine Northern Ireland could offer. If we weren't eating we were talking, if we weren't talking we were laughing, if we weren't laughing, Jeff was all over us, "Come ahn JP! Give yah face a holiday and smile for once!" Afterward the owners brought out a few rounds of Irish Coffee, damn fine Irish Coffee, Jeff told us- the second-best in all of Belfast, he explained. The cream was thick, the coffee rich, the drop of whiskey just enough. Jeff was right. Damn fine Irish Coffee.

I had lost in the round of sixteen to an experienced Englishman a few years older, his 6'6 frame covering my length and anything else I tried. As a loss would normally signal the end of a stay, the family suggested sticking around: a few days later, that local guy named Van Morrison was coming to town.

It turned out Van Morrison wanted to celebrate his 70th birthday by returning to Cyprus Avenue for a small concert on on the street that inspired the early goings of what would become his legendary career. Only a couple thousand tickets were released and fans from New Zealand to the Canada were coming in for it, but since the family lived on what became the concert grounds, they were given a dozen free tickets, and one was generously offered to me.

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By the day of the concert I had finally matched the faces to the names of the neighbors and friends. One of my favorites was Tracy, the owner of her own bakery, Scone Mad, hailing from a rural town in the lake districts of Northern Ireland, Fermanagh ("Eh beaut-E-full en charm-en town: 2/3 under water, the other third should be!") and who by the end of the weekend swore she too was gonna give gluten free a shot (she later did- and is now apparently three months in with no signs of turning back.) On the porch or in the yard, over tea and around the kitchens, the Irish wit and banter was quick and slick and if you could keep up it was just too good- easy to see why pints at the bar is a high quality way to spend a lot of time.

We spent the afternoon with a couple dozen friends in the backyard, strolled along the trees of Cyprus Avenue past the other neighbors and cocktail parties and toward the music from the man himself, came back for a classic English tea time of epic proportions- chocolates and scones and biscuits and toast and champagne (with a couple gluten free options too) that would make the Queen herself proud.

As the concert music faded out and the streets began to empty, I sat in the kitchen with Adrian and Rebecca and the last of their guests as the final evening of the long holiday weekend crept in. We shared the stories and laughs of the last couple days, soaked up the waning last hours of our time together. I tried to tell them how much this week did for me. How much I owed them, how lucky I was to be pulled right into their world. They just smiled.

And when all the others left and it was just us again, we opened up a bottle of wine and toasted to the week that was. The Leesons and their new friend, the wandering pro who for a few days in August was right at home. Nowhere to be but sitting at the kitchen table, helping finishing the bottle of red.

The next day would mark the first day of school for the kids, the end of summer, the departure of the American fly on the wall. And the start of the next chapter of life on Cyprus Avenue in East Belfast. 

 

 The UK's Strongest Man competition overlapped with our pro squash tournament- hard to tell us all apart   

The UK's Strongest Man competition overlapped with our pro squash tournament- hard to tell us all apart   

 A blow up pub on the street turned concert venue for Van...only in Belfast

A blow up pub on the street turned concert venue for Van...only in Belfast

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