How an Irish Fender Bender Can Land You in a Belfast Jail
Belfast, Northern Ireland
My husband and I had flown into Dublin for a week long vacation, and quickly dumped half our life savings into an Irish car rental, preparing to drive around the country. After spending the better part of ten minutes discussing the pros and cons of paying for extra protection, we slapped down a credit card and were off. Already broke from the car insurance and airport coffee, we shared a muffin and headed north.
It didn’t occur to us in those first few minutes of Irish bliss that there were things ahead of us even worse than the treacherous experience of driving on the wrong side of the road. Worse than navigating poorly marked roundabouts, just two hours off a red eye flight. It didn’t occur to us that what we really had to fear was the strict Belfast policy of being a tourist in a bumper collision, with no permanent address in the North of Ireland. No, we were too preoccupied with trying to figure out if the speedometer was in kilometers or miles.
“Happy enough?” Words we’d hear a hundred times over when my husband was arrested and charged with the crime of fender bending in the Northern Irish city of Belfast later that same day. Each time they’d run the expression by us, we’d tilt our heads, as when a dog cocks his ear to be sure you’ve said the word “treat”. We’d look at them funny, as though a spaceship hovered just over their shoulders. It was possible they were aliens, but more likely we were experiencing cultural dissonance over the definition of happiness.
Earlier that morning, after practicing the tedious virtue of patience while driving in unfamiliar territory and bickering over directions with one’s spouse; we left the Republic of Ireland behind, and saw the city of Belfast before us. The arrival into the north happens almost unexpectedly, and before we could finish our debate about how many cows we could count scattered across the hills, we were suddenly forced to lay down our weapons (mine being a map, his being a coffee). Without much warning, we found ourselves in the middle of the city, trying to locate our hotel through a maze of streets. It seemed as though my energy from the coffee had already spiked and fizzled, and as we hit the first roundabout, I yelled out the turn too late, invoking in my husband the knee jerk reaction to cut across two lanes of traffic, and causing us to bounce off another car. Fortunately, nobody was injured, and the car that hit us from behind had nary a scratch. My husband and I called a truce over directions and cows, assumed we’d swap insurance details with the man standing outside his car, and then get on with things as planned.
An hour later we were still in the crossfire of a roundabout even the locals called dangerous, and after much folded head discussion between two smartly dressed constables, we were asked to accompany them to the local precinct for further “paperwork”. Having a police escort in the face of a bumper collision on foreign soil, is both humiliating and slightly disconcerting, to say the least.
Upon arriving at the station and realizing we were the entertainment du jour (Americans weren’t often found at police stations in Belfast) I sat down on a bench and returned to waiting. Why we couldn’t have done this at the roundabout eluded me, and as I turned to ask my husband about it for the third time, I noticed him ravenously tearing apart his passport.
“If I get arrested, call the consulate immediately,” he told me.
I might have muttered a response, but the headlines from the Hollywood Reporter had just been emailed to my Blackberry. It was good to see Harvey Weinstein was going to reinvent himself yet again, and wondered if he would buy my pitch: “Stupid Americans Kill Bill in Belfast, so Uma Thurman can go back to eating.”
The local fellow we collided with exited the questioning room and bid us farewell. One knows there is cause to look up from the Hollywood Reporter when parting words include the expression “Good luck.” Something about it had an ominous tone. My husband was called into the questioning room next, and I kept busy reading about who would make an appearance at the Tribeca Film Festival. Before I got to the line up for Cannes, though, he was back with a woeful look on his face.
“Just call the consulate.” It was the mantra of a defeated man, and the constable announced that my husband was under arrest for having no official address in Northern Ireland. Despite my thirty second rant that we barely had time to use the bathroom, never mind establish permanent residency, he told us our hotel address wasn’t applicable, and that with any luck my husband might get out of jail that night.
“Happy enough?” he asked me. I didn’t get a chance to respond before I was left alone on that stupid bench, staring at another constable who was answering the phones. He clicked his tongue against his teeth, sadly shaking his head. “What made you come to Belfast anyway?” he asked me. I told him I wasn’t sure I knew anymore.
It has been said about me that when given a task, I go to it like a dog with a bone. I mercilessly tear into the flesh of whatever chosen instrument is mine to chew, until I have gnawed it down to the core. Thus, an hour later, it gave my husband great pleasure to know that when his arresting officers were unable to get the American Consulate on the line, it was because they were already talking to me instead. He continued to refuse responsibility for the heinous crime of fender bending, while I sat numbly on my bench outside. I had gotten off the phone, and having been told by the consulate to “follow the local rules”, heatedly demanded that someone explain them to me in person, and in an accent I could actually understand. Happy Enough?! I screamed at the American on the other end of the phone, and went back to the bone, trying to think of someone influential I would threaten to call. My dad wasn’t going to cut it this time, although he’s a business wiz in the world of bio-tech.
Two hours later, the Consulate representative still had not arrived, but my husband’s “solicitor” strode through the door, rolling her eyes and apologizing profusely for the inconvenience. I told her we had scheduled only one day in Belfast, so given the setting sun; really, it was no inconvenience at all. I paid the two hundred Euros required for bail, and we were finally back on the streets of Belfast, worse for the wear, and more disillusioned than ever with car insurance. We were due in court at 10 a.m. the next day.
That night we discovered how lovely the city of Belfast really is. Granted, we had two quick shots of Jameson’s on the way from the car park to our hotel, but there we were, taking in the sights and sounds of a city we had always longed to see. Sure, it was dark, and all the museums were closed, but at least my husband was out of jail.
We embraced the energy of the city, delusional with shock and exhaustion, and decided the highlight of our evening was the congratulations received when recalling our story to avid listeners, “Good on you, Mate! Good on you!” they told us. We were relieved to know the tourist rules weren’t so far reaching as to preclude us from bonding with the locals.
The city proved even more delightful by day, this assessment achieved by our 9 a.m. cab ride to the courts, heads throbbing. Luckily, our constable had done some serious thinking in his late night evaluation of our circumstances, and arrived at the courts promising to speak to our new solicitor and accomplish good things. Two solicitors, Three constables, Two Americans, and one dented fender, only twenty four hours after our arrival.
We were again asked for a consultation at yet another precinct, and I found myself wondering once more if my husband would be released before Irish dusk. This time, however, we made it out by noon, and with an apology from the lead detective, our bail was returned, and we were excused from making a court appearance (I wasn’t even going to get to see a judge in a wig!?) Turned lose into the Belfast sun, we shook our heads in disbelief, but I guess we knew what it was like to be paranoid – we were from New York.
While sitting on one of the many Irish benches I had come to know during my stay in Belfast, I asked a Ccnstable how one could be sure they’d crossed the line from North to South, where they could be free of fender-bender-tourist-jail rule. His answer was simple, and although I dug for something more (you know by now how I am with bones). I was told that my Blackberry signal would change from the UK to the Republic.
I stared at my Blackberry as we drove; keeping my husband up to date each time there was a blip indicating possible service change. After traveling through rolling hills and small towns suspended in lush, green mountains, my attention was at last diverted from the stunning beauty of the Emerald Isle to the words we had been longing to see: Welcome to the Republic of Ireland! I knew that Blackberry was going to be good for something, I told him, and we went back to arguing over cows.
Rebecca is an independent filmmaker. Check out her works at www.velveteenfilms.com.