It Happened in Belfast

 by Rochelle Almeida

Fernando’s fingers matched the color of his cheap synthetic parka—cornflower blue—as he stood outside Marks & Spencer playing a forlorn version of Jingle Bells on his piano accordion. It was nine in the morning on a soggy Saturday in Belfast. I was in Northern Ireland to learn about ‘The Troubles’. But before night fell, an impoverished Romanian would teach me two of life’s most valuable lessons that my Dad had tried to communicate for years:  Christmas is about Caring and There is More Joy in Giving than in Receiving.

I soon found out that Belfast has none of Dublin’s gaiety. It still cowers under the doubtful shroud of religious fanaticism. Even at Christmas. Early-bird shoppers flocked around Donegal Place that weekend morning, their minds too focused on Mammon to lend a thought to the lone musician whose accordion case revealed slim pickings.

Despite wearing leather gloves, my fingers ached against the cold. As the bus wound its sluggish way through the City Center, I tried every trick in the book to warm them. All to no avail. Finally, I sat tight on them hoping butt heat would penetrate my frosty upper extremities!

Fernando hadn’t moved from his spot outside Marks, a performing monkey whom none cared to notice. On the bus again, with darkness falling and temperatures dipping rapidly, we hastened towards Falls Road– home ground to the Irish Republican Army and Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein–to see the ugly side of fanaticism.

Nor could I shake off the image of a shivering Fernando. When next I saw him towards the end of that frigid day, I marveled at his tenacity. I had the comforting interior of buses to escape into and the soothing warmth of a cuppa as ginger and ginseng tea slid down my throat in the café at Marks where I indulged in an oven-fresh mince pie. All the while, he pumped upon the pleats of his accordion receiving a pittance in return.

My heart breaking, I approached him and tentatively, laid a pound coin in the accordion case at his feet. I could not have received a more beatifically grateful smile as he stopped his tune, mid-bar, to reach out and thank me.

“You play beautifully”, I said by way of encouragement. Another warm smile lit up his malnourished face as he nodded his head and said “Thank You” in an Eastern European accent that was hard to place.

The icebreaker led to a full-fledged conversation achieved through broken English and mad gesticulation. Fernando had arrived from Romania expecting to be rescued from abject poverty by the kindness of Celtic strangers.  He used his hands to indicate the falling heights of his four children and spoke of a wife who slogged as a kitchen maid.  Asked why he did not try to procure a better job, he replied, “No speakee the Eengleesh. No geeving job.” He could barely pay his rent, he said, and then “Belfast peoples no giving much money”. Because the city did not have an underground transport system in which he might have made music while avoiding the relentless cold, he was forced to stand in biting needles of freezing sleet to earn a few pounds a day. I nodded sadly, wished him well and walked away.

But the image of four starving children haunted my mind. The prosperity of the EU has left Romania lagging far behind in the economic rat race. Farmers and peasants such as Fernando, who told me he did “Agricole”, had little option but to leave their fields behind to seek employment in greener pastures.

He’d chosen the wrong period to arrive in Belfast for Europe’s crashing financial downturn did little to ease his burden. And yet, this musician continued to slave for his pennies. He stood outside a Belfast store, so far from home, day after cruel day, stopping for neither a gulp of water nor a morsel of food, playing his piano accordion with blue fingers, never giving up, never losing sight of his hungry children. How many lessons could I learn about paternal responsibility and tenacity from him?

In a nearby store, I stopped to count the hard currency in my wallet not expecting to find more than a few notes intended for use exclusively in situations where credit cards are not accepted. I had two notes of fifty pounds each. While I could easily part with one of them, I’d need to hold on to some hard cash to get me back to London.

I did not pause too long to ponder. Sudden flashes of generosity often dry upon collision with harsher self-centeredness. I returned to Marks, listened as Fernando finished his nth smiling rendition of Jingle Bells, then pressed a fifty-pound note into his frozen fingers. “For your children”, I said, “so they can have a happy Christmas”.

Startled, Fernando’s face lit up like a festive candle. He stared at the note unable to believe his eyes. “Mamma Mia”, he exclaimed, then “Santa Maria!” and he stuffed the money quickly into the breast pocket of the thin shirt he wore beneath his parka, as if afraid I might change my mind and demand my cash back. He held both my hands in his and with tears quickly clouding his vision, pressed them and repeated a heavily accented “Thank you” till I lost count of how many he had uttered.

Moved to tears myself by his poignant display of gratitude, I choked, unshed tears thickening my voice as I repeated, “Please, I would like you to use this to give your children a nice Christmas.” But they weren’t tears of sorrow at all. Wet expressions of the purest joy bought by one small spontaneous gesture threatened to spill down my own cheeks. I used the same actions suggesting the diminishing heights of tiny tots to convey my message. He got it. He nodded. He gulped. He raised his eyes heavenwards. He muttered a prayer in his native tongue. A prayer of gratitude for his sudden bout of good fortune. And another for my own well being.

Christmas in Belfast brought me an epiphany of sorts. I left Fernando knowing I would never see him again. In faraway Ireland, this Indian immigrant professor in America on a temporary stay in England learned life’s most valuable lessons from another émigré—a poor uneducated Romanian farmer. My Dad was right all along. I received a sleigh full of true joy from having given away only a small portion of my possessions that made Christmas happier for four little ones whom I would never know.

Even as I imagined their faces lighting up on Christmas morning with the simplest offerings that their father would produce, I wished I had also given Fernando the second note in my wallet.