With this photograph I came perilously close to creating an international incident at the G8 Summit.
It still doesn’t seem very sinister to me, but let me explain. . . .
Father’s Day was the one day during our travels when we absolutely, positively needed to be awake and ready at a designated time (the equivalent of 4:00 a.m. at home) to journey up the coast of Northern Ireland. Our entire trip had been designed around this day.
We had been in Scotland, off the grid, and had no clue our own President was coming to town. We were not even aware the G8 Summit was about to begin until we got to the airport in Northern Ireland. As we breezed out of the landing area, we passed through a room brimming with forest-green clad police officers, all seemingly in line from the same flight.
It was the first clue that something out-of-the-ordinary might be going on.
In the next room we saw a woman who seemed to be an official greeter and said to my son Noah, “Are you with Obama?”
Both perplexed and impressed (not to mention credulous), I asked, “You could tell we’re Democrats by looking at him?”
She smiled and pointed at my son’s shirtsleeve, which bore an oval red, white and blue insignia not unlike the Obama campaign motif.
Still, I did not realize the President was about to arrive until our cab driver mentioned it on our drive into Belfast’s heart. President Obama, it seemed, would be speaking in Belfast the day after Father’s Day.
I learned during a past trip that I need not only to turn off my telephone at an overseas journey’s outset, before I get on the first plane, but also remove its battery and place it elsewhere so there is no chance of my accidentally accruing hundreds of dollars of charges. That meant I wouldn’t have ready access to the correct time. I also soon realized that many of the public clocks in Belfast were set at impressively contradictory times.
But I also knew I had to wake my children on Father’s Day morning on time to set off on our trip up the coast.
What might a sensible person have done? Perhaps invest a few bucks in a cheap watch along with the hefty Euros and pounds sterling I dissipated on airport coffee and Cadbury milk chocolate? (Note to self: caffeine does not enhance my traveling persona.)
Didn’t do that.
Instead, as we were packing (frantically, at the last minute, hours after my daughter’s graduation) I had the bright idea of plucking my bedside alarm clock and putting it in my backpack. After all, I knew how to set it. On the other hand, it didn’t seem worth my while to set it to the new time once we arrived in Europe, so I kept it at the old one. (There’s a pretty fine line between my degree of mathematical ineptitude and my inability to set even the simplest devices. Since it was just arithmetic I went with adding a five.)
Bear with me. Some context is required.
Father’s Day morning arrived and I left the hotel where the children slept. My mission was to get them something for breakfast so they would have enough fuel for the day’s trip.
We were not far from City Hall, Belfast’s political epicenter. I wandered that way with my small bag and two cameras (one I use more for close-ups, and a backup I use for random shots-on-the-fly). The alarm clock from home, still set to home time, was stuffed into my raincoat pocket so I’d be certain to be back to wake up the children and get to our taxi.
The streets were empty. Stores were shuttered. Not a single eatery seemed inclined to open before 1:00 that afternoon. Then I saw what might be a possibility to grab some sustenance: a McDonald’s on the same block as Donegall Square, which is fronted by City Hall.
Before I tried to cross the empty intersection, I took a few pictures. I took one of some carved letter “S’s” on a corner building, and at least the second-most-beautiful grocery store edifice I’d ever seen.
And then I took one last picture before heading back, of the carved brick. The entire design caught my eye: the mythical beasts clutching a rose and laurel garland whose leaves are placed like griffons’ lolling tongues, the conjoined clawed foot, the more modern and geometric tented middle triangle.
I gauged whether there was time enough left to run across the street into McDonalds before heading back to the hotel.
I had proceeded one building up the street, towards the intersection and City Hall, when I reached into my pocket, which was sagging with the weight of a camera and clock, both clattering against an impressive assortment of random Scottish and Irish change.
I pulled out the alarm clock and promptly dropped it on the bricks. The clock’s front had disconnected when it hit the sidewalk, so I picked it up and tried to jam it back into place. It was time to hustle back to the hotel.
In retrospect, I can see that frantically adjusting a small electronic device in this way might have looked a wee bit suspicious.
By the time I looked up, a cheerfully checkered armored vehicle had pulled up onto the sidewalk next to me and three heavily armed men were coming around one side of it. I don’t mean Glocks and batons. I mean automatic weapons with the length and heft of a well fed German Shepard.
These guys didn’t just have bullet-proof vests; they were swathed in body armor. And an impressive array of ammo clips–you know, just in case the five loaded weapons at hand weren’t up to the job. Two more of them were approaching me in the space between the truck and the building.
So of course I looked back over both my shoulders to see what was up. The street was still empty.
Oh. They seemed to want to talk to me.
To give you the full picture of just how non-threatening I believed myself to be: I was wearing a bright blue dress under a green knit sweater, and the aforementioned droopy and ineffective raincoat. This topped off the sartorial splendor of lime green socks and bright purple climbing sneakers with magenta laces. Because all my hair fasteners had disappeared in Edinburgh, I’d braided my hair and secured it with a safety pin and some peach silk thread I found attached to my dress’s lining.
I was about where you’d picture me on a spectrum between bag lady and high-tech global security threat.
“Miss, you were just taking a picture of the bank.”
Not computing. Did I take a picture of a bank? And had my Fodors guide neglected to mention some rule about not taking pictures of banks?
“Oh, you mean the building with the red windows and the letter ‘S’s? I was just taking a picture of the that because half of my family’s names begin with the letter ‘S’…..” I had wracked my brain to come up with a suspicious activity I might have engaged in. Babbling ensued.
“No, the picture you just took. May we see your camera?”
“Sure, I’m sorry. . . .”
“Are you here for the G8 Summit, Miss?” It was another of the armed men.
Their accents were quite charming, but this was clearly heading in the direction of a “good cop, bad cop” interrogation.
I also was growing concerned about getting back to the hotel in time. I realized I had failed to leave a note for the children about “What to do and whom to call if mom is involved in an international incident.” Dammit.
“I, uh, no. . .I didn’t even realize it was going on here until. . .”
“Are you on holiday?” It was the first guy again, who appeared to be in charge.
“Well, not exactly. I mean, I’m here with my children. . .”
The first guy was trying to review my photos, so (probably unwisely, and not something I’d recommend upon reflection) I reached right over a couple of those massive firearms to show him how to press the little button.
Fortuitously, my younger daughter had taught me the photo-reviewing skill a couple of days earlier.
“These are the letter ‘S’ pictures . . . and, here. . . oh, the brick? I’m not supposed to take pictures of the brick?”
“That’s the bank.” Guy Number One paused. “It’s unusual for a person to be taking a picture of the bank.” The stress was on the “unusual,” and the voice was on the stern side. I thought he might be warming up for the bad cop part.
“It’s just that my mother likes Medieval motifs and I thought I’d take a picture of the brick for her. Do you want me to erase the picture?” He had completed his review of my tiny blue camera’s contents.
“Oh, no, no.” Guy Number One had already completely wound down from any trace of the bad cop facade. (The look on his face was very similar to the one I got from a cop who pulled me over when I was nine months’ pregnant and had just pulled out of a parking lot, mistaking my car for one he’d been pursuing; he ended up sheepishly asking me if I’d like his badge number.)
They were all looking at each other. “Do you have some ID please?”
Thank God I had all the passports on me. I hadn’t taken them with me even close to every time I left the hotel. I fumbled with the stack and produced mine to the head guy.
“Where are you staying?”
I gestured down the block, where the hotel’s sign was visible in scarlet print. They looked at each other in a knowing way.
“How are you getting around? Have you a car?”
“Oh, no.” I looked down at my now squishy-from-rain bright purple sneakers. “Mostly we’re walking . . . .and we’re supposed to be taking a cab up the coast this morning.”
Guy Number One frowned slightly and Guy Number Two gave it the old college try: “So you’re not here for the Summit and you’re not on holiday? Why are you here?” He paused, taking in my dubious attire. Not the stuff of jet-setting Fortune 500. “It’s not business, is it?”
By this time I was getting a little frantic about missing the coastal trip–and what my kids were going to think if they woke up and eventually discovered that not only did I fail to bring them breakfast, but I was being held in Guantanamo or the like.
“Oh, no. Dude,” I managed to sputter (without actually saying the “dude” part out loud). I lifted my necklace chain out of my saturated rain jacket (probably another ill-advised quick movement) and held up Jim’s wedding band. “No, it’s not that, I mean, it’s not really a vacation. It’s just we wanted to be here on Father’s Day because my children and I wanted to bring my husband’s ashes up the coast. We’re going to see the Giant’s Causeway.” I realized I was in danger of tearing up, although Belfast weather provides a good cover. “And I was just trying to find them something to eat, and I couldn’t find anything . . . .”
They were doing an admirable job of keeping straight faces. When I handed over my passport I subtly placed it atop my home ID, with flags arrayed impressively behind my photo–the better to convey my devotion to entrenched institutional authority.
“It’s just we have to be careful, with the Summit and all,” Guy Number One said as he took the passport, before beating his hasty retreat.
“Oh, I understand. I’m a prosecutor back home,” I added hopefully.
Three of the armed men had slunk to the back of the armored truck, leaving Guy Number One with my passport and poor Guy Number Two stuck with me.
Guy Number One had retreated as far as possible and turned his back to me as he was calling in to whomever was manning the cameras which had spotted my hapless morning activities.
The people manning the cameras were probably laughing their asses off and offering helpful advice to Guy Number One about how to wrap up this encounter.
“Um,” I ventured. “Please, would it be OK if I just ran into the McDonald’s, because I’ve got to get the kids up. There’s a taxi coming for us in ten . . . well, probably seven or eight minutes.”
Guy Number One, who had my passport in hand and was calling someone, turned around, straightened out his face and pointed. “See there,” he said, “That little store, there, it’s open and you can go in there and get some drinks and something for them to eat.”
“You mean it’s OK for me to leave?”
“Oh, that’s fine.” He waited a beat, my passport in his hand.
“And you do have my passport.” I acknowledged sheepishly.
“I do have your passport. I’ll just be a minute.”
So I dashed across the street (in my best Boston jaywalk) and blitzed through the tiny store I had missed. The clerk had just rung up my items when Guy Number One came in the front, filling the door frame in all his uniformed, bulkily beweaponed glory.
“Here you go, Stephanie.” He called out my name merrily and stepped in to hand me my passport. “Have a pleasant day. Looks like the weather’s clearing.”
The clerk looked at me.
I ran back to the hotel room and the kids were none the wiser. They didn’t even raise an eyebrow when I wrote down a couple of numbers for them to call just in case I were to cause some sort of international incident during the remainder of our travels.
I remembered the time, years ago, when–for completely innocuous reasons, I assure you–Jim happened to arrive home from work just as I had situated myself in the back seat of a police car and the officer was going around to the driver’s seat. Without missing a beat, Jim parked, got out of his pickup truck, glanced at me in the back of the police car and nodded to the officer: “It’s about time.”
Jim walked into the house as our children, who were all outside playing a game on the patio Jim had built, laughed.
This Father’s Day I could picture Jim watching over this scene, chuckling heartily as I tried to explain myself and my odd architectural interests and collection of misbegotten electronic devices to international security forces.
He knew I would need some levity in my day–as would the children and friends who will now know exactly how I spent that morning.
“It’s not that I’m laughing at you, Steph; it’s just so damn entertaining to watch you sometimes.”