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Hopefully, this reads nothing like those awful clip-show highlight episodes which lost all value once you could buy box sets, but my family’s adventure on a portion of the world’s twentieth largest island has ended. I will try not to rehash the many learnings I’ve shared in my previous blogs [which started almost exactly 20 months ago], but rather my many failings and a few final experiences I’ll probably forget if I don’t put them out on the Internet to be thrown back in my face for eternity.

 

A man and his [many] failings

Throughout the wandering rants of this blog, some of you may have noticed I was mostly discussing things I learned and exposing annoyingly inefficient processes from filing for a UK visa to topping up my gas to almost anything in global airports. Well, now that the secondment is over, I want to go through the many objects and behaviours I never managed to understand. I must be too brainwashed by my American youth.

  • belfast-city-bus.jpgIt likely seems silly to care so damn much, but everywhere you go on the island, there are sinks with separate taps for hot and cold water. I understand this might have been a limitation of plumbing a hundred years ago, but my gym was built in 2014 and I cannot think of a single time, ever, that I have wanted to burn my left hand as I chill my right. Ever.
  • I have ridden the pink bus in Belfast to and from work for eighteen months and every single time, I hear a large majority of passengers thank the bus driver while departing. I understand politeness, but this is a country where you only tip a waiter at lunch for doing an exceptional job, so why thank the seemingly psychotic driver who treats the accelerator and brake pedals like they have binary settings of ‘fully depressed’ and ‘untouched’ while people are still walking to their seats? Is it just an appreciation for removing your appetite?
  • Regarding that tip, I failed to ever convince my wife it was appropriate not to tip a server who had been both rude and mostly unavailable. In nineteen months.
  • In every UK building I’ve entered, all inside doors are fire doors which snap shut behind you. In offices, this leads to a great deal of slamming doors or fire door violations when doorstops are planted. At home, this leads to fathers taking toddlers to the A&E on a Sunday night because automatically closing doors are insane in a house with children. Can we have a US-UK debate over fire codes? Is slamming doors more important than emergency exit doors opening outward without a panic bar?
  • In the US, beer is the highest point in the taxonomy, with ales and lagers being the two classes separated by the type of yeast and its top vs. bottom location of preference for the fermentation process. In the UK, I failed to learn which because it baffles me, but either ‘lager’ or ‘ale’ is a synonym of ‘beer’. I think ale is not beer, but I have no idea why.
  • Dual carriageways very closely resemble Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Highways in the US, but there is absolutely no rule preventing pedestrians from walking twenty miles along the dual carriageway as large, metal objects pass at 75 miles per hour.
  • Why are the zippers on the opposite side of the jacket in the UK from the US? Is this a knight and squire scenario like the right-handed knights causing cars to drive on the left?
  • NI_MOT.jpgWhile at the Oddyssey cinema for an absurdly affordable matinee (£1.50 per seat), it took at least twenty minutes to get tickets because they were sold at the concession stand and nowhere else. Why does this make any sense?
  • I never learned the Northern Ireland MOT rules, but I don’t think anyone actually has. It’s the only region of the UK in which these tests need to be at a dedicated centre, but you can pay for an “MOT prep” visit to a garage. When we failed ours and brought the car to get the two items fixed, the rear brake light in the window was not even mandatory, so we never fixed it yet passed the second time. Right?
  • I never learned the Sunday parking rules. Whenever you drive around Belfast on a Sunday, you witness cars parked on sidewalks, corners, major roads, and basically anywhere, but did I still manage to get two parking tickets on Sundays? Of course I did.
  • I am proud to say I never hit anything in a Northern Ireland car park [an Irish stone wall, though…], but I cannot understand why they are all tight enough that the concrete walls are decorated with black smears from hundreds of car bumpers.
  • I never learned how an American could actually get a UK driving licence. I am certain it has been done at some point in history, but I cannot imagine trusting my passport through the post for over a month just to validate its authenticity.
  • And a non-UK failing: I never did figure out how Newark Liberty airport employees can possibly answer the same questions about where to go thousands of times and still think we are all the stupid ones. Signs and airport layout are important. Come on.

 

Nineteen canine months in a new country

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I haven’t really mentioned my dog here since she had a stress-induced sickness just after we arrived. Well, here’s what she learned on the adventure:

  • Scottish terriers represent everything evil and wrong in the world so it is appropriate to point them out to all via loud screeches and growls.
  • It rains.
  • Carpets are better than hardwood for demonstrating anxiety.
  • The more natural play doh in the UK is delicious.

She’s very insightful.

 

Toddlers and a distorted reality

Having moved to Belfast when our daughters were not yet two and half years old, there has been a dramatic change in them and it’s strange to think they will likely never remember learning to talk while residing in another country. And do they ever talk. But it will only get more confusing for them when we return. No longer will they know when to say “pants” instead of “trousers”. I’m certain they’ll say “hiya” to strangers and ask a few people if they’re “cross”. They’ll probably expect a nativity play next year. Many people may think they’re misspeaking when they call a wet surface “slippy”. I’m sure they’ll remember nothing of this adventure, but at least we have an obscene amount of pictures as evidence it happened. Maybe they’ll stop making us sound wealthy to strangers, as well, once they realise we no longer have “another house in America”.

 

Rewiring my brain to the new/old “normal”

Having only lived in one tiny region of the world before, it is going to be very strange to regularly come back to The Big Smoke [just learned this nickname] as a visitor, but I probably learned more in these two years than in the previous ten, so at least the close ties and familiarity will make it permanently comforting. Regarding the Rapid7 Belfast office, I don’t anticipate ever working in another that feels so familial. There are a couple of guys in the office who turn into walking advent calendars in December with a different Christmas jumper every day, including one with a light up fireplace and the most popular in Belfast this year: Rudolph with a red-nose pom-pom. We set the standard for future Christmas parties with a private Star Wars: The Force Awakens screening at noon, Swapping Santa with an array of shenanigans and two gifted bottles of Buckfast, then a “casino night” in the office, followed by a three-course Christmas meal at the Ivory. To truly make it my best ever last day in an office, I finally tasted Buckfast [and was both impressed and depressed when it tasted like Coca-Cola and cheap wine], lost my voice from having done the Dublin office party the night before, and received dozens of hugs on a night typically known for coworkers punching each other.

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But it was a good time. An Eddie Rockets just opened on Lisburn Road as that entire street has been filled with thriving, new businesses since our arrival, so obviously it needed an American-style fast food joint. So it is time to move away from Una [our original aide in learning the city], Oonagh [my bus stop friend from County Donegal], and Oonagh [my wife’s very close Northern Irish friend] to a place where I know absolutely no one by that name. But just don’t ever ask us if we felt safe while living in Belfast. The forty years of “The Troubles” which are so often seen as a dark and dangerous time in Northern Ireland are in the past and never as frequently involved innocent victims as what I've seen in the reports from The States today. The riots which take place annually are not remotely as damaging as the results of most “celebration” riots when a US city’s professional sports team wins a championship. The rest of the world knows Belfast is much safer than most every US city.

 

The actual journey home was incredibly less painful than the original trip overseas, thanks mostly to a perfect string of helpful members of the service industry. Our dog travelled with us down to Dublin in Daniel’s full-sized van as the girls left Northern Ireland on a gorgeous, sunny last day of Autumn exactly as they first entered it: sleeping soundly. Niamh [pronounced “Neeve”] from Aer Lingus escorted us from the check-in counter to the oversize baggage weighing counter to the one oversize counter which takes pets to the cargo area to a final ticket desk where one pays one tenth of the fee for bringing the same dog to the rabies-free island. The [happily] uneventful flight arrived early, leading to the anxious thought of the dog underneath us completely unaware of why we were sitting completely still on the runway because air traffic control has still not solved the fragility of its gate-scheduling process. The final taxi van driver dropped us at home and kindly carried our bags onto the porch as we were placing sleeping toddlers on random couches.

 

Less than an hour later, I was nearly broadsided as I jaywalked while looking the wrong direction.

 

End.

That’s it.

Well, this is my penultimate public rant [at least about living abroad], so while I do have a quick anecdote about a Northern Ireland [and Game of Thrones] road trip, I feel I'd be doing my five loyal readers a disservice if I don't expand on a small portion of my Visitors' Guide and give a proper rundown of the various establishments I recommend for Belfast's most popular sport: drinking.

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Dark, hedgey, and almost out of place

Well over two hundred years ago, the ridiculously wealthy and noble-y Stuart Family [apparently spelled Stewart approximately 62% of the time to confuse everyone with my version of OCD] decided to plant some beech trees on the road to their Georgian mansion [the adjective differentiates it from their many other mansions], Gracehill House. I'm not sure how popular this destination was in the pre-Khaleesi era, but these trees have grown into such a beautiful pattern that Game of Thrones used them to represent the king's road in season 2, and now everyone asks if you've seen "the Game of Thrones trees". So we went. And they are gorgeous. And incredibly crowded with absolutely no enforcement around the parking, driving, or being remotely polite to the people who want to walk it. And there was even a random car full of eastern European teenagers blasting house music as they bizarrely danced next to a beech tree just before sundown. I can't explain that last one. Sorry.

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Where to go when you want to ignore the first advice a random American gave me

On my first trip to Belfast, nearly two years ago, a Logan airport employee offered his completely unsolicited advice: "do not try to go drinking with them." Well, I thanked him endlessly for his sage wisdom and proceeded on my way. After first visiting twice, and since, obviously living here, I want to provide my own helpful advice by walking through my ten favourite places in Belfast to grab a drink (in no particular order). And, as far as Logan airport guy's advice goes, I just suggest you always make the effort to grab a solid meal because many Belfast residents actually believe "Eatin's cheatin'." and your body may violently disagree [as mine does].

 

Down the alley, there

The only place on the list located in "The Entries", McCracken's Cafe Bar is a great place to grab a pint of Guinness and the food is always better than I expect when I'm in the mood for pub food.

onion-yardbird.jpg

 

Onions & Chickens

On every visit to Belfast, the Rapid7 North American [it includes Canada] contingent makes sure to have a Guinness and/or some whiskey [the 'e' implies it is usually not Scotch whisky] at The Dirty Onion. I'm not sure if it's the endearing smell of peat wafting from the rear fireplace, the distractingly ugly Jameson Barrel-Man sculpture as you enter the brick false walls of the entrance and front garden, or just the overall casual feeling of the place, but you always feel welcome in its embrace. The Guinness is reliably well-poured with clean lines and the whiskey selection ranges from a Pappy Van Winkle bourbon to the major Scotch options and the full range of Irish whiskey [Redbreast 12 being my default].

 

As an excellent complement, upstairs is one of Belfast's best lunch spots, the Yardbird, where the menu is perfectly simple and I cannot imagine ordering anything other than the 1/4 chicken [roasted on the spit] and skin-on fries [with a mix of their smokey barbecue sauce and mayonnaise]. The pints are delicious up there, too.

 

Bringing the craft beer world to Belfast

Nine months ago, I would have stated the best place in Belfast to find craft beer was at Hudson Bar. While they have been surpassed by another, they continue to offer a solid, rotating list of mostly English, Scottish, and Irish beers, such as BrewDog Dead Pony or Five AM, and they have a great "beer garden" for enjoying a pint on a sunny, summer afternoon [if you theoretically would ever do that kind of thing].

 

Lingerie & Gin

One bar in Belfast very clear about its identity is Muriel's Cafe Bar. If you enjoy gin drinks, don't you dare enter here with a specific brand in mind. It would be an insult to the bar staff not to ask what they recommend from the wall of dozens of different gins, which range from fruit-infused to spiced to the traditional London varieties, but I don't think I've had the some one twice, and they all go very well with Fever Tree gin. Once you've made your choice, you can stay near the bar on the ground floor and bump your head on the various lingerie dangling from the ceiling or you can choose to look upstairs for room on the plush lounge-style couches. It really depends on your mood.

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Humour and meet-ups

The 2015 NI Pub of the Year - City was awarded to Sunflower Public House. I am not a frequent patron, at all, but I appreciate its exterior signs and its serving as a great venue for most of the monthly Belfast Beer Club meetings, of which I have made a shamefully small number.

 

A solid local with pies and sport

Though we rarely get there now, while in our long-time temporary office, the Rapid7 "local" was The Garrick Bar and it was also the first bar I visited in Belfast [oh so long ago]. We did watch a significant portion of last year's World Cup there, with the benefit of a front bar and back bar offering two separate games simultaneously. There is an extensive list of German beers available if you don't want a well-poured Guinness and I was pleasantly surprised to find St. Stefanus on the list of bottles they stock. The main reason we return these days is to satisfy a meat pie craving or just enjoy the free sausage and other canapes they periodically offer to the patrons on large metal trays.

 

Bots & Beer Catalogues

I feel like I spent more than a year whingeing about the lack of a world-class beer bar in Belfast, and the Kickstarter-funded, Austin/Belfast "brew from a mobile app and fancy kit" Brewbot opened a bar below their corporate office on the Ormeau Road and curbed my complaints in satisfying fashion. The first time I visited, I was offered a job because I had tasted every one of their many beers, but in only a few months, they've made that nearly impossible. Flights of beer are available in two sizes, beers from across North America, the British Isles, and continental Europe are available on draught or in bottles, and you can even get a high-end espresso drink to keep you awake long enough to sample more delicious craft beer. I'll stop. Okay, just one more thing: their beer list is a minimum of fifty pages, so instead of ignoring your friends to stare at your phone, you can ignore them to continuously read about your next potential beer [theoretically, if you are that kind of person].

Vaudeville-recruiting.jpg

 

Grandiose and hard to fill

We have our annual University recruiting event [as pictured] at the tea business-turned-whiskey distillery-turned-bank-turned-bar that is Cafe Vaudeville. We have proven it fits well over two hundred thirsty students. I really enjoy its new lunch menu. It is a sight to behold. They have outdoor tables during some of Belfast's 9-month spring/autumn season [2015 included no summer]. Visit.

 

A roofdeck? In Belfast?

I feel like the last person to find out about The Perch, but I knew Rita's just below as the only place I've found Hitachino Nest in Belfast, and when we were suddenly brought from there through a hallway filled with the bird sounds and up an old-school lift, I really liked the partially-open rooftop hosting this bar. If you're worried about the cold, the staff frequently walks around with soft blankets and the heat lamps above most tables are quite comforting.

 

Get dressed, we're getting some mixed drinks

The first time I visited The Albany, I had a delicious steak and my wife had a great mixed drink, but we would never forget how decked out everyone got before stepping in the door. The bar staff likely goes by the title "mixologists" and there is an array of international beers available, but you go for the social atmosphere and to lose your train of thought staring into the chandelier.

 

Don't you dare change on me, Buckfast

I haven't reviewed to check, so I'll do what most people do with statistics [make them up]. It was disappointing to decrease my "Buckfast in the wild" discovery rate to only around 1.0 per month [wild ass guess] with last month's zero, but just last week I came upon the aftermath of either (a) a Heineken bottle shedding its glass to evolve into a more potent beast or (b) a turf war between the two.

buckfast-leaves.jpg

Having reached the point in the secondment when we have booked our one-way flight home and started contacting US services like daycare centers and pediatricians, my family and I are going surprisingly light on the rest of our travel plans. However, it didn't stop us from achieving one of the coolest possibilities living on an island unlocks: witnessing the sunrise on the east coast and the sunset on the west coast in the same day. As always, here are some of the random events I found interesting from the past month.

 

“Autumn” weather

In a recent blog, I mentioned just how un-summer-like this summer’s weather was in Ireland – it was the “worst summer in 23 years”, as a Northern Irishman who just moved back after fifteen years in The States informed me [but I forgot to ask him for his source]. Well, naturally, as is almost to be expected here, late September and early October have been noticeably warmer than July was, to the point that it reached twenty [68 in American] degrees on the sixth day of Autumn, which made it the perfect day to drive across the entire island. Right? I even get sunlight on my computer screen most days since the staging and grey [gray in American] tarps were taken down from the shinier, brickier, Arnott House.

 

“Probably the best city in the world”

On the [obviously not] famous trip my wife and I took to Ireland in 2003, we spent the last day in Galway and above the nearby Cliffs of Moher, but didn’t feel we’d spent a sufficient amount of time in that region. So, naturally, as it had been nagging at us for 12 years, we put off a second [proper] visit for eighteen months while living a measly four-hour drive away. About that four-hour drive:

  • It looks incredibly daunting when you pull it up on Google Maps:
    • 36 different steps, including twelve different roundabouts [Americans beware]
    • crossing a country border with no patrol
    • tolls which only accept the currency you don’t have at the start
  • But as you drive it, you realize it’s essentially three roads because:
    • The M1 in Northern Ireland becomes the A1 which becomes the N1 in Ireland before becoming a different M1
    • The N52 boasts very few overtaking [passing in American] lanes the entire way and contains almost every one of the twelve roundabouts without changing its name
    • The M6 takes you from there [over the River Suck] right up to the “Welcome to Galway: Probably the Best City in the World” sign

 

The Internet failed to explain the “probably the best…” tagline to me, but it is present on a great deal of tourist items and gifts. If you are travelling from the US to Ireland and want to be with a lot of your people, Galway is the place for you. American accents were so prevalent that it was the only place we have visited on the island without once being asked if we were from The States. The food disappointed us more than other areas of Ireland, but I did have an amazing sea bass dish in the one restaurant in the town of Furbogh and the best lamb stew of my life in a random pub in Clifden. Oh, and before leaving the west, I devoured my first real bacon butty with a tomato relish so amazing we bought it at a nearby shop.

Galway clouds.jpgThe area of Connemara has two places you need to see: the gorgeous Kylemore Abbey and the Twelve Bens, but neither is perfect without the cloud cover and sunsets you witness with consistency.

kylemore abbey.jpg

galway sunset.jpg

 

The city whose name is forever under dispute640px-Signpostinstrabane.JPG

The last city we had remaining on the list of “must see before we move back” was Derry/Londonderry [always pronounced “Derry Stroke Londonderry” to be safe in any crowd]. There are multiple websites dedicated to the dispute over this city’s name, so I’ll briefly summarize by saying it’s Derry to one group and Londonderry to another. If you know anything about the two sides of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, you can probably guess which prefers each. More interesting than the reason is the number of jokes surrounding it. Just by mentioning our day trip, I heard it called “Stroke City” and “the only city name in which the first six letters are silent”. On the drive there [over the River Ness which has nothing to do with Loch Ness on another island], I counted at least three signs on which the “London” was covered in black spray-paint. I didn’t manage to take a photo, but there are a ton online, such as the one to the right.

 

Its welcome sign calls it “The Walled City”, rather than playing with any of the politics, because the center is surrounded by a 17th century wall on which you can walk and quickly appreciate how its cannons would have protected the heart of the city from English and Scottish “settlers”. This wall and the craft village within are worth the trip, but the people are not exactly the friendly Galway residents.

derry wall.jpg

 

Dublin, again, so soon

If you’re reading this and haven’t seen that we acquired a company on Tuesday, I don’t quite know how you got here. As a way to kick off the new, awesome Rapid7 with a second development office on the island, a few of us visited the [now named] Rapid7 Dublin office to meet everyone and celebrate over a couple pints and glasses of whiskey. Oh, and I also took the opportunity to have two different venison courses in the same meal, which I would like to repeat if I ever find another visionary enough restaurant to make it possible. I hadn’t been in Dublin after nightfall since the now, finally, famous visit of 2003, but it being a Monday, I'm not sure I got the full experience.

 

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean I’ll be blogging more about being here next year. [As far as I know.]

 

Apologies to the “Buckfast in the Wild” fans out there. I didn’t stop looking. I just didn’t spot any.

Sandwiched by two four-day holiday excursions to beautiful locales, my family and I had a relatively quiet month. My in-laws became our only repeat visitors and managed a few new experiences they missed a year prior. I brought an American friend to what amounted to a feeding frenzy for buzzed, amateur comedians. Let me get to a point now.

 

A Grecian sunset (plus more bizarre new memories…)

Most people today only know Greece for one reason: worldwide economic instability. Yeah, well, I have no interest in that rat hole today. Having never been to the country before, I was excited for three child-free nights to attend a wedding between a Greco-American friend of my wife and her new, Greek husband. Our trip may have been too short to visit any of the beautiful islands, but this just elevated our determination to see Athens [where the cicadas in the trees are almost deafening], visit a real beach, and soak in everything possible before our daughters reached a boiling point without their parents in Belfast for the longest ever period of time. I don’t write about wedding ceremonies because I couldn’t properly do them justice, so hopefully the sunset from the ceremony’s church atop one of the higher points in Greece says everything necessary about it. If you don't know about the celebrations of this culture but the speech took place at the receptions mid-way point around 1:30AM and the DJ was on the clock until five.

Grecian Sunset.jpg

I heard easily a dozen languages among the diverse tourists of Athens, but none grabbed more of my attention than a couple at lunch speaking English as the best way to communicate with what sounded like Italian and French accents. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you are surely on the edge of your seat awaiting three reviews: the beer, the coffee, and the bacon. Sorry for making you read through so much gibberish. The beer available in shops and the majority of restaurants is absolutely nothing to write about, but I did manage to try one delicious local craft beer from Septem Microbrewery [so there's hope...]. The bacon is a little less raw than in the Netherlands, but otherwise, a very meaty version of German bacon, so I devoured it each morning with a small wish I knew a legit butcher back in the States so I can start a weekly rotation of bacons of the world. The coffee is quite good; you can get a decent cappuccino almost anywhere, and the “greek coffee” was appropriately described by a coworker as “sludge”. The flavor is great, but you do not want to finish it.

On our way to a magnificent beach, we befriended our taxi driver and I learned even more of the availability cascade’s effect on worldwide perspectives of the US. Just after passing a pickup truck without no mirrors housing an entire “Roma” [as I’m told they are called] family nestled into a wooden stage suspended just feet above the legitimate truck bed, we mentioned how rarely we relax on the beach and he asked if it was because of the abundance of sharks. Ugh. I would love to have heard the response from Barry Glassner. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the economy, but at least it was nice to finally visit a busy beach where one can acquire 0,75L of bottled water for a mere 0,50.

 

An Irish sunset (and a lot of old memories…)

Tidy-towns.jpgBefore I was a world traveller, taking day trips to Germany for work meetings and bored enough on transatlantic flights to write a monthly blog, I was just another American idiot looking to move down my dream list of countries to visit. As is probably cliché in the US, my first “must-visit” country was the closest a mutt like I has to an origin: [The Republic of] Ireland. We have been back to the Republic on a few separate occasions during our expatriation, but I had not been to Dublin since 2003. Coincidentally, I was in the city three times this month: work brought me back there for a meeting the day before flying to Greece, I took a train down to speak at SOURCE Dublin on the Trinity College campus just three weeks later, and we made a day-trip to explore it while staying with American friends in a renovated, remote farmhouse in County Kildare which would serve as the perfect setting for a movie about two families of four getting murdered. Happily, the only screams were those typical of children sprinting around an enormous house wedged between the reigning gold (Straffan) and bronze (Maynooth) medal winners of the surely non-political Tidy Towns battle of the Republic of Ireland. Straffan seems to have a distinct advantage in staying clean because it is so small it has:

                    • A solitary inn with a bar and lounge, but no restaurant.
                    • A petrol station which sells wine but not beer. In Ireland.Johnie-foxs.jpg

We took our lives in our hands driving from Tidy Towns through the Wicklow Mountains, up and down paved roads no wider than my Mercedes jeep. It is a rare feeling to not know whether you should drive fifty kilometres per hour to get to a main road faster or creep along in case someone is approaching in the opposite direction. The views and experiences through the Sally Gap and gardens of Powerscourt are all worth the adventure, but it has to be concluded with a visit to the [admittedly touristy] highest pub in Ireland, Johnnie Fox’s.

We chose a Sunday to visit Dublin and, while it was a bit drizzly, it was great to again explore the Trinity College campus without having to rush to a conference or train. From this starting point, we moved on to the Guinness Storehouse, which has changed dramatically in the past twelve years. I recognized nothing more than the gates and the rooftop Gravity Bar from which you can see the entire city. It now more closely resembles a shopping mall than a brewery and, according to unnamed sources at the brewery, it is now Europe’s number one tourist attraction of 2015. Apparently, these decisions are made before the year ends. Even after hitting all of the floors and riding around a good portion of the city along the river, we narrowly managed to catch our return train in time to see the sunset from our lovely horror movie rental farmhouse.

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The majority of days but minority of noteworthy events

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I will try to put my readers out of their misery by covering the rest of the events on the month rather quickly. While returning from Greece on SAS [Star Alliance!], I fixated on my boarding pass which covered both of my flights with a single bar code, unlike any other airline I’ve flown to date. I love technology. We didn’t get to experience Copenhagen, but we did walk through its airport’s hundreds of shops before customs and broad expanses after.

Back in Belfast, I received my first European vishing [voice phishing] attempt when a woman with an English accent called me to inform me that I am eligible for a discount on my (unnamed) life insurance policy. It must have meant I’m finally a local. That explains why it took me twenty fewer minutes to pick up my last package at the Royal Mail service point. The now enormous Rapid7 Belfast office had our summer party of paintball and we sadly said goodbye to Ken, the Irishman who moved earlier than I and is now returning to his home in Massachusetts. At least the party included its share of jokes about my US visitor getting called everything from “Zack Morris” to “son of the Mentalist” because of his flowing curly locks. The Northern Irish are never happier than when jointly picking on someone. A stranger at Brew Bot [where I must bring all visitors now!] asked what would possess Americans to visit Belfast for an entire week, very much in the vein of my previous blog.

The city’s buses have recently received new life from scrolling signs and automated announcements for bus stops. Our family explored another park, Minnowburn, which offers a beautiful view of the Malone House and Shaw’s Bridge. And, as always, I managed to spot some more Buckfast in the wild!

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As my family and I are down to four remaining months before our adventure in Northern Ireland ends, I now find it difficult to share some of our experiences because, while I believe we have fully assimilated (and was recently told as much), describing how life is different here than in New England must read as repetitive to the two of you who have read every one of these blogs [Hi to Beth R. and my wife]. Thankfully, a nice honeymooning couple from Ohio sat next to me on my recent flight to Newark and, over the course of enjoying the new United Airlines free beer and wine policy, reminded me of the many bewildered questions I regularly hear once people recognise an American accent from someone who says he lives in Belfast. This is my attempt to answer them all in one place.

 

Oh, you live in Belfast. How are you finding it?

Every time I step into a taxi or speak with someone in a pub in Belfast, I hear this statement of shock that an American would live in Belfast. I am not sure what people expect to hear as a response, but my unsatisfying answer is always somewhere between "Easy enough." and "I just love how convenient the city is." Just once, I'm tempted to tell someone it's a wasteland and complain about all the people just to see if this secretly unlocks a special conversation and acceptance into some sort of secret society. Instead, I think I'll just keep explaining how easy it has been to adjust to a second modern country where they speak the same language and appreciate breakfast meats more than any region of America. How great could the parties for this secret society be anyway? Probably boring enough that a movie about them would put me to sleep like "Eyes Wide Shut".

 

Did you move for work?

If you moved to Belfast from the United States for any reason other than school or work, I want to hear your story because you appear to be the only one. Everyone who asks this knows the answer. The software industry, or much larger "IT" industry, has become such a significant driver behind the Northern Ireland job market that every tradesman or pubgoer has a family member or close friend who is in IT [if you work in software or "high tech", you work in IT].

 

You moved your family? How are they finding it?

Maybe I'm the crazy person here, but how often would someone move to another country for more than a year and not bring the family? Typically, I think you would only do this if the temporary home is somehow unsafe, like in a war zone, Antarctica, or some country whose government happens to hate the US. Moving my family to Belfast is hardly the equivalent of sneaking them into Pyongyang. They get three more days per week to explore Northern Ireland than I do and the sheer number of parks, beaches, and children's centers seem to greatly outnumber the amount available within an hour's drive of Boston, so I would say they're finding it quite enjoyable.

 

You've been there over a year? Are you sick of it yet?

I feel like I only ever hear this question from Americans who must assume we are suffering through every day we can’t immediately have Dunkin’ Donuts or Frosted Flakes, but I do know I have heard it a lot. Short answer: No. I am not saying we are looking to extend our stay in Belfast, but it’s through no fault of the location or people. We planned to be in Belfast until the end of 2015 and are excited for the rest of this year. However, nothing we have done to this point puts us in a position to stay into 2016 and US banks have continually made it painful for us to reside outside the United States, even if they are actually owned by UK banks who should understand Chip-and-PIN technology [but more on that later].

 

Even after having been in Northern Ireland for over fifteen months, we keep finding new places to explore on our weekends on which we aren’t perfecting our tour guide and bed-and-breakfast skills. Just in the past month, I had my first visit to Hillsborough Gardens, we fought the crowds for Donkey Day (a real thing!!!) at the Ulster Folk Museum, and we wandered a small, beautiful portion of Murlough National Nature Reserve. I have only lived in a couple states in New England, but I guarantee you won’t find that range of options for weekend exploration around there. Also, it really doesn’t hurt that my constant complaint about the lack of proper beer bars through 2014 was effectively diffused by Brew Bot’s new location on the Ormeau Road. The bottle “list” is actually much closer to a catalog you would expect at your neighborhood Argos.

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The weather is really bad, isn't it?

This presumptive question is what most people want to ask when they either smirk or grimace and ask “how’s the weather?” I have attempted to explain it almost every month, but the best way I can prepare you is to align it to a phenomenon of the human brain Dan Ariely recently described so well. He was talking about physical pain, but the perception is the same; the human brain really only remembers the peaks of pain or pleasure it experiences. This was mostly helpful as we evolved to survive by seeking to repeat the pleasure and avoid repeating the serious pain. It also means that when the weather in a city is nearly the same every day of the year with the fluctuations only happening at unpredictable times, you have to describe it in unique ways. I can almost guarantee that any year in Boston will have more hot and sunny summer days than rainy ones and the winter will have a lot of snow. These peaks are very easy to recall each year. On the contrary, my two summers in Belfast have shown me how people expect the worst weather, truly celebrate the best weather, and regularly forget how the details and assume it rained lightly on any day you mention until they see summaries showing this July was the coldest on record and last July was the sunniest on record. I have gotten my use out of my light jacket and there is not a much more beautiful sight than a blue sky above the lush green landscape of this island.

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Do people actually swim at the beach?

Yes, they do. And it is shocking. I have been to a beach in Northern Ireland less than a dozen times, but I have always seen someone walking into the water. My only explanation for this is a complete lack of nerve endings on some residents of this country. I am not exactly a beach bum, but I am not even considering a swim in the Irish Sea. If you want to duplicate the experience (I am mostly piece-mealing together through separate small experiences of suffering) go to Maine, wait until there is a stiff breeze bringing the air temperature below seventy degrees (21C-ish) and run into the water. Let me know how it goes when you try it. I am okay with moving back to Boston without having ever known.

 

Do you not know "The Chuckle Brothers"?

I put this question in here because I was shocked to hear it asked of me three different times in the last month. No, I haven’t heard of “The Chuckle Brothers”. I also don’t get “Father Ted”. Sorry. I have tried. Some humour just doesn’t translate, I guess.

 

How are the people different?

It is always difficult to answer a broad question like this, but people seem to expect some response bordering on “don’t ever cross someone from Belfast”. The reality is that as long as you can handle more candor and sarcasm than you’ll experience in the US, you won’t really have any trouble getting used to the residents of Belfast. The beard culture has really taken hold to the point where the city’s hipsters have moved on to competitive moustache-growing. A recent interview candidate in our office actually said the words “physics is class craic” to two of us and no one blinked because it so effectively relayed his feelings [I should probably explain, but…]. The strangest encounter I can remember was the recent process to recover our initial security deposit on our first townhouse in Belfast. It’s not even normal to the Northern Irish, because I have asked, but our former landlord, whom we had paid via monthly bank transfer, tried to stop by our new townhouse in person twice before giving up. Naturally, this meant a strange woman knocked on our door on a Saturday evening, incorrectly asked if I used to live at 32 [we were at 30] and then asked if I was expecting a security deposit. I signed a little piece of torn paper and received one hundred and twenty £10 notes. I purposely spelled that out for effect. It actually happened just like that.

 

What is the point of having a chip card without a PIN?

If you have read my other blogs, you might know where this is going. Somehow, the biggest hassle about living abroad has been finding banks who are both interested in collecting the interchange fees associated with international credit card purchases and capable of approving purchases without getting thoroughly perplexed. My wife and I are now on our third set of MasterCards from the same bank (chosen only for the lack of international fees), two other sets were sent and lost in the mail without contacting us, and I have not once been able to purchase clothing for more than £150 without being flat out declined. To escalate the demonstration of bank incompetence, when I recently activated our latest cards, I followed the process to add a PIN so I could finally feel like a normal European at the till. So far, two weeks later, I am still prompted to sign a receipt by the cashiers who are rummaging through random items to find a pen.

 

How long will you be staying in Northern Ireland?

This question is never asked by someone who knows I’m living in Northern Ireland on a work visa. It is always asked as I reach the customs agents in the US (“how long was your visit?”) or in Belfast International Airport (worded as above) because, despite the noteworthy trend in recent years, no one ever expects a person carrying a United States passport to reside in Belfast. The most memorable occurrence of this question was when I recently went early to the Las Vegas airport to sort out my connection after our delayed departure appeared to reduce my Newark layover to less time than it takes to find the right security entrance in that pit. Upon hearing I was moving on to Belfast, the Las Vegas-based agent asked me, did a double take when I stated my residence, and immediately scolded me with “you’re going to need to be able to prove that!” as if he was somehow foiling my evil plan to sneak into Northern Ireland by researching less convenient flight options to arrive there.

 

Is the Guinness really that much better?

Yes. Don’t ask about the science or ingredients. Just accept that learning the proper pour is an entry level requirement to bartending and the smooth aftertaste will ruin your interest in ever again drinking Guinness outside this lovely island.

 

What the hell is Buckfast?

Okay, only people who read these blogs ask this question, but you know what? I’m still going to obsess over it. I am a little afraid to try this magical “tonic wine” which makes people simultaneously happy and angry through the volumes of alcohol and caffeine that caused Four Loko to get ripped off the shelves in American liquor stores. I was so excited by seeing a family of Buckfast in the wild this month, I grabbed a crappy photo during the 96 days I had a Huawei phone...

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One of the unique perspectives resulting from a secondment is spawned when your friends and family visit from your home country. While we have never before considered running a bed & breakfast, my wife and I have hosted a total of sixteen visitors, including eleven different members of my extended [and apparently mixed] family in the past month. Having experienced Northern Ireland for ourselves and now with an array of other Americans, we are now tourism specialists. It has been over a year since I took a break from whingeing on about my travel tribulations to convince people to try expatriation, so here is a long-term visitor's advice to anyone visiting Northern Ireland for the first time.

 

Arriving and getting around

While there are ferries to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, this would be a silly way to reach Belfast from the US because there are three convenient airports:

  • Belfast City airport (BHD) is not deceivingly named and flights from London many times a day, you could reach city centre in under ten minutes by car, taxi, bus, or even train. This efficient and small airport is great if your chosen airline flies direct to Heathrow.
  • Belfast International airport (BFS) is a little further from the city, but still less than thirty minutes travel. Outside of a stretch in early 2015, there is a daily direct flight to and from the infamous Newark Liberty International airport (EWR). I could list the flight numbers and times, but then I'd just be showing off the information I remember despite being accessible in 3 seconds on a phone.
  • Dublin International airport (DUB) was recently bestowed the great honour of being named my favourite airport. A lot of people don't realise this globally-connected airport is only ninety minutes drive or two hours by train or bus to Belfast.

My point is that it is quite easy to get to Belfast, and if you really want to breeze through customs, arrive in Dublin and tell the customs agent you are going to spend your entire stay in Northern Ireland. The stamp they put on your passport might as well say "someone else's problem".

 

Once here, you can reach the edges of the city on "the pink bus" for under three pounds, but you might want to study the Translink NI website before you arrive because despite being a small city, the bus routes can be puzzling. Taxis are very affordable, likely able to bring you anywhere in the city limits for under ten quid (translation: pound sterling). Just be prepared to receive text messages informing you when your taxi has been "despatched", which is apparently an acceptable spelling of "dispatched" mostly phased out worldwide, but now built into the automated system for my taxi service of choice. We have had a few visitors take a bus tour up the coast or around the city and everyone has enjoyed them, but if you prefer to explore yourself, I suggest hiring a car while you are here. While I was incredibly lucky, we learned the value of the added insurance when my cousin was involved in a minor accident navigating the thin streets and shocking [to Americans] parking procedures.

 

CausewayCoastalRouteSign.jpgThe most important thing you can pack for your visit is a light, waterproof jacket. It doesn't matter what time of year you'll be visiting. In the winter, you'll need a jumper (translation: sweater) under the jacket. In the summer, you will be carrying it for a few hours some days, but happy to have it when the temperature unpredictably drops to thirteen degrees (translation: 55F) in the afternoon and is accompanied by a light mist. The weather is a common discussion topic in Belfast, but mostly commiseration and exaggeration about the suffering it incurs. However, visitors are often pleasantly surprised by the weather while here, just as long as they don't put any trust in the forecast. Nate Silver explained how weather forecasts are purposely skewed to avoid angering consumers in "The Signal and the Noise", but the same tactics just don't suffice here as a ten percent chance of rain at ten in the morning turns into a heavy, short downpour while an identical prediction at three becomes a sunny, summer afternoon. I don't blame the meteorologists, though. The weather is constantly changing, so while you rarely get a full day of sun, at least you rarely have a day completely filled with rain.

Sights and sites

The first Northern Ireland sight on everyone's list is the Giant's Causeway on the north coast. All of our visitors have been to see it and some even got in free by avoiding the visitor centre and simply walking down the coastline. The rocky cliffs and ocean coastline offer stunning views and you even get to learn a combination of mythology and physical science while there - it's called giant's causeway after the giant, Finn McCool, who built it with hexagonal rocks as a path to Scotland to fight the Scottish giants but silly scientists eventually debunked that with evidence it consists of basalt columns formed by volcanic eruptions fifty million years ago. In sheer beauty, though, I would suggest making the hike for the view from the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Originally, a rope bridge from a cliff to a "casting island" was repaired every spring so local fishermen could spend an entire day reeling in the salmon you can still smell and hear the seagulls eating today. Both of these "Areas of Outstanding Beauty" are managed by the National Trust along the gorgeous Causeway Coastal Route I love to drive to its end near the great-for-kids Carrickfergus Castle. Other beautiful drives are along the Mourne Coastal Route, which is so confusing it exists on both sides of the Strangford Lough you can only cross via ferry and stops just short of the Ballyquintin Scenic Loop, which goes from Portaferry to the very southern tip of the Ards Peninsula and includes a view of the world's first commercial-scale tidal turbine.

 

strangford-tidal-turbine.jpgNo visit to Belfast is complete without taking a Black Taxi Tour, and if you want recommendations on drivers, my wife "has got a guy" our visitors all strongly recommend. This tour aims to give you an unbiased guide to the various sites of "The Troubles", the political and cultural clashes of the past fifty years. Every driver has his own story he may or may not share, but the murals, gates, and other locations key to the tour are the best way to get a feel for the weight of the events we only heard about in the United States when tensions peaked. Other popular places to learn about Belfast's history are the Ulster Museum, next to the Botanic Garden, and the Titanic Museum, conveniently located where the Titanic was built on Queen's Island, accessible from city centre via a brand new walking bridge, and very near the W5 (WhoWhatWhereWhenWhy), where my wife and I recently survived an afternoon with six girls under ten years of age. [Thank you, science and discovery.]

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If you're celebrating a special occasion and can spend a little more, stay in the Victorian wing at the Merchant Hotel. It will make you feel like proper ladies and gentlemen from a period drama, except for the ridiculously luxurious rainwater shower I'm certain is a more recent addition. Even if you're not looking to channel your inner Keira Knightley for an entire night, you should book reservations for afternoon tea.

 

Shops (not stores), food, and drink

I am not a big fan of shopping, so I am not going to offer any advice on getting clothes in Belfast, but you need to make sure you get to the shops before five o'clock on every day except Thursday, when they stay open much later [because it's Thursday! duh.] You need to find some way to visit the markets while visiting, whether it is St. George's Market any Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, or one of the various seasonal markets in city centre or on Queen's Island. The fruit, vegetables, and meat available at the local M&S are fresh enough to reignite my cousins' love of strawberries and I just cooked some burgers from St. George's which tasted like a strange and delicious new meat I need to have again. Soon. We have never been freshness zealots, but having everything grown nearby and available at such reasonable prices is already changing how we plan to spend our money upon returning to New England. If you want a meal at any market, I recommend an Ulster fry (back bacon, sausage, fried egg(s), grilled tomato, potato pancake, soda bread, baked beans, and/or mushrooms) or a Belfast Bap (some combination of sausage, back bacon, egg and red or brown sauce on a floury roll), but the crepes and burgers are all very popular, as well.

 

There are tons of coffee shops around Belfast and while caramel squares are the traybake (translation: baked dessert) of choice at most of them, the scones have elicited their share of impressed comments for being crumbly yet moist, so you don't choke on the powder. Don't expect a great deal of breakfast options on Sunday because ten is considered an early opening in many neighbourhoods. Don't order a lemonade and expect to get anything other than a 7UP or Sprite. Everyone has their favorite place for a brunch or lunch Ulster Fry, but what has thus far surprised everyone is the quality of modern European restaurants best described as eclectic and incredibly fresh. Belfast isn't known for a specific cuisine, but the average restaurant has exceeded every expectation to date.

 

Belfast pubs and bars very much live up to the Irish reputation, but the best part of the experience is the crowd. Crown Bar is in all of the tourism books because of its history as a Victorian gin palace, complete with snugs for drinking very privately, but the best reason to visit is the bar staff who take pride in quieting noisy patrons and explaining it's a "Proper bar - no frackin' mixed drinks. You've got your liquors, beers, ales, wines and ice." Right next door is Robinson's, which includes a large assortment of crisps (bacon or beef flavour!) and a back bar called "Fibber Magees". You need to visit Fibber's because it promises live traditional music every night of the week and there is nothing quite like watching an impressive Irish fiddler on a weeknight with a Guinness and people of all ages enjoying it with you. I don't know anywhere else in the world where every age group so casually and appropriately enjoys an occasional pub night together. Buckfast-twelfth.jpg

 

People and "events"

I always love the conversations after our family and friends interact with Belfast residents. If someone asks you fifty questions, they are genuinely that friendly and interested. Most of them have visited some area of the United States. If someone asks a variation of "any craic?" [pronounced like "crack"], they are just asking if you did anything fun. When people say they are from a mixed family, it means one of their parents is Protestant and the other is Catholic.

 

For anyone looking to learn more about the cultural divide than is covered on the Black Taxi Tour, you can visit on the Twelfth of July, also known as Orangemen's Day. I am not going to get into too much detail around it, but after having planned a holiday in the south last year, my family, including my mixed-couple parents, walked down to see the parade this year. Marching bands from across Northern Ireland and Scotland march and display a very diverse series of banners showing everything from pictures of a young Jesus with his flock of sheep to a conquering Dutch King on his horse. The public intoxication differs from Mardi Gras in New Orleans because it covers all ages and it's followed by the most impressive bottle clean-up crew before darkness even falls. I did, however, manage to grab a picture of one particularly glorious pair of Buckfast bottles the next day, when the buses took a mostly unannounced public holiday.

Since dumping over 2,500 words here last month and then sharing a broken link, I am making an effort to be more reader-friendly for the four of you who decide to return this month on my family's "do all the things" adventure in Northern Ireland. We moved between townhouses and offices, had American friends and family visit, and I attended a conference in both London and Berlin, all while approaching a Father's Day solstice when the sky wasn't dark until nearly midnight. [Please help me with my Oxford Commas.] Here is what I've been able to [partially] process from these events.

 

Moving house

ikea-maze.jpgContinuing with our pattern of filling every free minute, we moved everything we possess in Northern Ireland roughly five townhouses away (in distance - 28 in address) at the same time two of our American friends were sending us messages from Boston Logan and Newark Liberty airports before crossing the ocean to explore our part of the world. Why would we put ourselves through the hell of moving thirteen months into a twenty-month expatriation? [I know you asked that because everyone has.] Well, when I travel for work, having no fence around our back garden meant my wife had to walk a dog around the block with two toddlers in tow before and after every day's events (and the Hathaway toddlers have a lot of events). Additionally, our lease was up, we had no guarantee on our townhouse for seven months, and we had gotten sick of using one spare bedroom for storage when a garage would be a much better fit. The logic was that suffering through a rainy-sunny-rainy-sunny fourteen hour move within the same postcode would be worth it to live in a place much more suited for the daily chaos. As a side note, the UK's postcode system is so far superior to the US zip code system, I would struggle to even listen to a counter-argument. With a single alpha-numeric code, I can identify a location within a maximum of 100 delivery points. I just wanted to share this useless information with people.

 

During the preceding week, I was in London for InfoSec Europe [You should go next year.] while my wife was simultaneously obtaining furniture (some of which is from IKEA hell), keys to our new townhouse, and the information necessary to sign a new letting agreement. So while I was learning there is no correct way to travel into London, she was renegotiating pricing and the level of furnishing with a local who knew he had the upper hand when we asked if he would accept a dog and a seven-month lease. While I was getting stranded in rural England for a night [detail below], she was working through a plan to sign our new lease 36 hours later. When I was back and mostly done moving, we got to attempt to take a shower, but fail to get more than a weak dribble out of the seemingly nicer showers because we couldn't decipher the instructions written by the former owners (who were every neighbour's favourite couple ever) telling us to simply turn on the water pump to the bottom right of the "hot press". It wasn't until I was waiting for our friends to arrive in Belfast International airport that I successfully searched online and learned that the closet on our top floor with a hot water heater is our hot press. What a difference that pump switch makes.

 

Moving office

For those readers who don't know, we were in our temporary Belfast space for roughly eighteen months. We were so thrilled to move to our spacious new location, near the trendy Cathedral Quarter, that we did so on a day the Internet wasn't fully connected. The office move was a lot less eventful than my home move since every person involved had so few items to transport, but it was another opportunity to carry objects through the rain and casually stroll between offices in beautiful sunny weather because that is just how weather works here. Timing our home move right around my office move was not the greatest idea, since this meant there were a couple of days I had no TV at home, no landline phone anywhere, and next to no internet access outside of trusted coffee shops. It was a great flashback to the first weeks we were living abroad.

 

Still on the move

Since I sandwiched two conferences around the week our friends were visiting from the States, it means I got to spend more time doing two of my least favorite things: a) travelling between Heathrow Airport and London, and b) navigating the endless customs processes of Frankfurt Airport. I have nothing new to add about either that hasn't previously been described at length in this space, but I just want to say that adding three hundred Japanese tourists into the Frankfurt Airport queues doesn't remotely improve the ridiculous inefficiency. The planned €36 million renovation project is going to overshoot its budget if efficiency is the required outcome. It's funded by Lufthansa and they have gradually evolved their in-flight meals to be sandwiches which are more unnamed condiments than meat or cheese. Plus, my upgrade rate with them on intra-Germany flights has now dropped from 100% to 33%, so I'm a little bitter.

 

Both conferences were great for us, but Berlin was a little more exciting host city since I haven't been there in five or so years. Mostly, I learned their bacon is tasty, but almost identical to American bacon, and my limited German I know from sampling a great deal of German beer failed me when I nearly ordered a Berliner Weiss with the expectation of enjoying a lighter wheat beer with a hint of sourness, only to be informed it is infused with fruit and actually quite sweet. At least I was able to increase my daily fanciness by dissolving rock sugar on a stick in my cappuccinos.

 

A tale of two over-bookings

Everyone has heard of or experienced an over-booking while travelling; I just happened to get two of them, handled in completely opposing ways, over a ten-day period. The evening I arrived in Berlin for FIRST Conference [You should go next year.], I was informed that, while my coworkers who reserved their rooms less than a week in advance had beautiful rooms waiting for them at the Intercontinental, the hotel was completely full and my longer-standing reservation was impossible to honour. Despite this annoyance, I think Intercontinental handled it extremely well by showing genuine contrition, reserving me a room 100 meters away and then treating me like a celebrity by handling all the financials at the other hotel, upgrading me to Club Suites for the week, providing free internet and food, and a fantastic room. Additionally, hotels in Germany nearly all provide full refunds on cancellations up until 17:00 on the day of the reservation, so they are challenged to balance the likelihood of cancellations and opportunity costs of unbooked rooms.

 

On the opposite side of the spectrum is British Airways. I have tried to be nice to BA since they offer free drinks to everyone, but that just doesn't make up for the awful way they treat their customers. I arrived at London Heathrow Airport an hour prior to my domestic flight back to Belfast City Airport upon InfoSec Eurpope's conclusion. The BA kiosk simply informed me it could not help me and printed out a piece of paper saying nothing more than this. I proceeded to the service desk directly behind the kiosk and a smiling agent chuckled when she saw I had tried to use a silly kiosk to check in for my flight, as if this technology would not be trustworthy for another decade. She then tagged my bag, typed a lot, and made a phone call before informing me I needed to proceed behind her to desk fourteen in a completely different area. I walked up to an empty desk fourteen and was asked what I needed. Informing a new agent of my very clear situation, I received an eye-roll and was told she'd help me at desk twelve. This is the point when I was informed the plane is already full and I had no seat. This was not a case of massive cancellations on another flight or unexpected delays. British Airways just overbooks every flight out of sheer greed, offers no refunds to anyone, and then tells you to hope some of the passengers who have already checked in somehow get lost on the way to the security lines so you can steal their seats. I didn't get lucky enough for one of these people to get locked into a magazine shop, so BA reserved me a room at a nearby hotel, gave me a front row seat for the first flight in the morning, and gave me vouchers for the shuttle which runs roughly once per hour. The lesson is that even if you are satisfied with the seat you've reserved and have no chance of upgrade, you still have to check into BA online or they'll accept more money from someone else like a scalper and you'll be out of a seat. If only their accountants realised they were losing money here, they would adjust their algorithms, but then again, the "fraud detection" on my World Mastercard hasn't improved in fourteen months, so I expect nothing to change soon. The worst part of it all is wasting three full hours which could have been spent casually enjoying a meal in London had I known I could not go home that evening.

 

No more moving

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Happily, we are settled into both our home and office for the remainder of 2015. So, instead of more trips to IKEA or a local coffee shop for internet, we can continue showing American visitors the beauty and history of Northern Ireland. I have family visiting now, and my parents will be in Belfast for The Twelfth this year, so I already know it won't be an identical summer experience to the last. Because they apparently never stop hitting me, here are the surprises in NI from this month:

  • Before leaving for London, I took advantage of a lovely "£9.99 for a burger with any pint" deal and was shocked to see the final cost was...£9.99! That's right. In the US, without question, the same exact wording would mean you pay the deal price plus the cost of the pint.
  • After now celebrating as many of my Father's Days in Europe as I had in the States, I've decided to start tracking the social norms I wish I could bring back to Massachusetts.
    • So far, I need to duplicate a day in which I enjoyed three meals containing [back] bacon and eggs. Breakfast was rather common, but I had a bacon and egg Belfast Bap for lunch and the amazing Aussie Burger (also containing beetroot, pineapple, Thousand Island dressing, and probably another delicious ingredient) from Rocket & Relish for dinner. I was complimented for having eaten the burger without a fork or knife.buckfast-sunning.jpg
    • I really want to retain the ability to back into a parking spot while staring into unphased oncoming traffic.
    • I also would love to abolish all mandatory tipping scenarios in the US because, as anyone here will ask, if tipping is mandatory, why isn't it just the fee?
  • On the first day of a small book festival in Belfast, my daughters got to summarily reject the idea of paint on their faces and instead make paper windmills for free. [In the US, they're called "pinwheels".]
  • I finally had the chance to explore tiny Portaferry and the southern tip of The Ards peninsula with friends. Seafood and a cool Guinness in the sun on a twenty-degree spring day is as good as you'd expect.
  • This past weekend, I drove on the motorway alongside a gorgeous, classic Ford Mustang with Arizona plates and both a small American and a small Dixie flag on the dashboard. My first thought was to imagine the effort its owner must have gone through to get it to Ireland after my own experience shipping belongings and a dog last year.
  • I still haven't figured out which buses are skipped on which workdays, but it meant walking our friends to city centre because if we waited for the next bus, they might miss their tour of the Causeway Coastal Route.

And lastly, because it is what everyone hopes to see every month, I discovered the next subject for my "Buckfast in the Wild" series. As any wilderness photographer does, I worried my luck had run out when I discovered a weathered pint bottle relieved from his hedge hiding spot when the trimmer made an annual visit but lacked a camera to capture it. Then, I discovered this little guy sunning himself on the beautiful 23-degree final day of spring.

[Originally posted on May 25th, 2015.]

I just completed a stretch of five weeks in which I broke my [apparently rare] phone, never spent more than six consecutive days in Belfast, and drove more consecutive days in Italy on the non-commonwealth side of the road than I had in any one place in the past year, so hopefully I can capture the many experiences here, though it'll take a lot of words. Since plane travel was involved, my family of four has had somewhere between five and nine different viruses in that time, but it is impossible to accurately count, given the mix of common colds and what must be at least one case of bronchitis. As always, I've tried to organise my many ramblings into a few categories that somehow make sense in my head.

Social norms - good and bad

Pisa-hipster-coffee.jpgI am currently reading about the significant impact social norms have on our decision-making processes, so I've been noticing a lot more behaviour in this category wherever I go. Since we built an extended family holiday around a Tuscan wedding, I experienced a few noticeable social norms in Firenze which differ from those of the US and UK. The taxi drivers all possess an unmatched patience for pedestrians while following unaware tourists down narrow cobblestone streets, use horns as originally intended rather than to demonstrate anger, and slowly get close enough to get noticed without actually bumping anyone. The social contract here and learning to read and send cues are somewhat natural extensions of the acceptable practices of parking wherever convenient and waiting for opposing drivers to pass on thin roads in the UK, but would be a massive challenge for US drivers to learn. I really wish we could develop some of these social contracts on trains because many single Italian passengers have decided they are as deserving of four seats facing one another as any groups of three or more people.

 

All coffee drinks in Italy are served at the appropriate temperature to be immediately enjoyed (even at hipster coffee shops you wouldn't expect in Pisa), as opposed to scalding your taste buds to prevent you from recognizing how bitter and burnt it so often is in other countries. The only guarantee in each Italian village is there will be a place to sit and drink coffee and wine, sometimes both are in a single Tabacchi. I am not sure it's a social norm, but we witnessed a moment when a RedBull Mini parked near tourists and the female driver in her mid-20s started rapidly cracking open cans and handing them to every street vendor who paused from shoving selfie sticks and umbrellas in tourists' faces to approach the car with an open hand.

As I said above, I have rarely been in Belfast long enough to appreciate the sheer number of bank branches currently undergoing renovations, but I have managed to learn the reality about the 'opening hours' businesses post online: they are aspirational, at best. After visiting a phone repair shop at 9:45 one morning and seeing the door still very blocked by metal shutters, I rechecked the website to confirm the 9:30 Monday opening and noticed the times listed were 9:30PM to 12AM, so my confidence in Google was immediately shot. Upon speaking with the merchant, I learned the owner was late because his daughter visited Sunday night. That was the end of the explanation.

Marathons in three obviously different cities

Having lived over a decade in and near Boston, I was unsurprised by the number of 'Out Monday for the Marathon' emails on Patriots' Day because we all know how crazy Boston gets on the day of one of the world's most famous marathons. Six days later, we left Belfast for a charity event in which our toddlers abandoned us to dance with teenagers and returned to the city to run errands while driving alongside the final mile of the Belfast Marathon. The disruptions were kept to such a minimum that it gave a perfect contrast when we attempted to depart our convenient rental apartment on Via Porta Rossa in Firenze (with an uncountable number of stone stairs) during a seemingly unannounced half-marathon (length undetermined) which actually formed a full circle around our area of the city. Our taxi driver knew nothing of the event, no signs were posted anywhere even minutes beforehand, police officers forced us to sit and wait to pass, and we couldn't find a single mention of the event online. All we know for sure is that people were running and when we found the bridge they crossed, we immediately saw them crossing back on the next bridge, so the race planners never considered automobiles may want to enter or leave roughly sixteen city blocks just south of the Duomo.

Air travel [skip ahead if you dislike my rants]

We very often assume there was a great deal of thinking and planning before any system, airport, and procedure is put in place for us, but I believe this is actually the case in a very small minority of systems. I'll move through this chronologically, but only because it would be nearly impossible to rank the sheer ridiculousness.

When arriving in Newark airport with the family, I had two hours to get through customs, drop my bag for my connection and transport strollers, car seats, toddlers, and luggage to the rental car conveniently located two AirTrain stops away. Since Smart Cartes are a standard size and I had to pay $6 to use one, I was silly enough to think it would (a) fit into lifts and (b) fit easily on the AirTrain. It might have been less painful to move it all by hand. After packing it all into the rental car, I merely needed to return three stops and proceed through security to reach my gate exactly in time to sit in row 39 on my flight to San Francisco, since only Germany thinks I deserve better. In case you ever wondered: if you check into your flight early and have status, you'll be seated away from your family in a slightly better seat, but if you don't check in early, you will apparently be moved to the cheap seats for no defensible reason whatsoever. When leaving the US for home, we found out that getting the latest flight from the States to Europe (especially when it's delayed an hour) is definitely best to ensure young children sleep well and a child incoherently crying upon being disturbed from a deep sleep absolutely guarantees an expedited trip through customs in the arrival airport.

For our one family excursion to continental Europe during expatriation, we pre-booked parking in Dublin Airport (only 60 for 8 full days in the short term lot), stepped through old fashioned metal detectors with our shoes, and flew to Frankfurt Airport. Frankfurt might actually love stairs and buses more than Heathrow because we had an hour to connect from Lufthansa to Lufthansa and this process went as:

  • Walk down stairs from plane and pick up strollers
  • Board and ride bus past two terminals and roughly forty different gates
  • Take two escalators upwards and proceed through a security check with backscatter machines
  • Locate terminal A and proceed through customs to reach the 'European side of the airport', whatever that means
  • Take the lifts down to our actual gate just in time to board another bus and walk up the stairs to the plane to Firenze

The worst part might actually have been the stranger sitting two rows behind us who stood with his bag over my head as I grabbed our two cabin bags and started to head toward the plane exit. Not only did he decide he deserved to get off the plane before us, but he actually cut in front of my wife and children without saying a word. Can anyone explain these people who rush to grab their bags and skip ahead one or two rows because the orderly filing by row fails to account for their extremely high level of importance?

The return from Firenze airport was even more challenging because finding the rental car return is like driving through a garden maze and our flight was delayed fifteen minutes, so we were already anxious when greeted with a completely different connection process in Frankfurt:

  • Walk down the stairs and board another bus (we didn't bother getting strollers this time)
  • Ride by our gate again and dozens of others
  • Proceed up an escalator, through the terminal from which we expected to depart, then down an escalator
  • Pass through customs yet again for an unexplained reason
  • Walk to the desk for all boarding passes and passports to be checked and then stand around for ten minutes
  • Board a bus to our plane and sit on the tarmac as it finishes its final checks
  • Begin flying to Dublin and get in a fight with a flight attendant because she claims sleeping children need to be sitting upright for safety reasons even though I've magically buckled them and explained this rule has never existed on any previous flight, but that's okay because her expertise on necessary safety was evident in her 'well, it's the truth.' response

Upon arriving in Dublin, we once again proceeded through customs in Dublin Airport, but happily the extreme convenience of pre-booked parking (no tickets because the licence plate is scanned upon entry and exit) made it rather quick to get back on the road to Belfast. For those keeping track at home, Smart Cartes are free in Belfast, Dublin, Frankfurt, and Firenze, but cost money throughout the US because nothing can be free and convenient.

 

Random events and adventures

Since we were lucky enough to avoid the inexplicable traffic south of DC on our drive from a wedding in Richmond, we were able to spend ninety minutes in the Smithsonian's National Zoo. In contrast to the Belfast Zoo we've visited on various occasions, it was great to get in for free (though with parking more expensive than tickets), but I'd rather pay and see some animals. I understand the need to let the animals roam their habitats, but we easily saw stuffed animals and prints of animals in twice as many locations across the park as actual living creatures. I did manage to spot a random Windows issue on a kiosk near one of the many areas we didn't see animals.

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                          • While at my cousin's rehearsal cocktail reception at a southern United States version of a 'gentlemen's club', which it turns out is not a Yellow Pages description of a strip club, I found out my extended family has questioned whether I'm actually in a three-letter US government organization. Apparently, having an uncommon job description few people understand, moving your family to another country, frequently travelling across borders, often carrying three types of currency, and switching SIM cards can make one sound a lot cooler and spy-like than one will ever actually be.
                          • After leaving the villa in rural Tuscany where the wedding took place, we had a few hours to explore Siena and other villages on the way to the Firenze airport. Thanks to not understanding the social norms of Siena, we rushed around Piazza del Campo constantly preoccupied by the question of whether our rental minivan-disguised-as-an-SUV would be towed on the day we needed to fly home. Then, we stopped in a rundown village and got some delicious gelato at a new shop with no bathroom, which made it perfect for breaking up a long drive.

During the six consecutive days I was in Belfast, a friend from Boston visited and managed to speed-sightsee Northern Ireland in three days before we learned it is nearly impossible to book train or bus transportation across the border. If you go to Northern Ireland's websites for either, you can easily plan a route through the country and even include a town on the border, but then you need to use a separate website for the Republic of Ireland transportation, starting with the border town. Google Maps works for one of them, but I can never remember which. The Republic, I think.

I made some other random observations which didn't fit into any one category:

  • Given my blood type and comfort around needles, I had given blood for most of the ten years prior to moving to Belfast. I was recently reminded I won't be able to donate again for at least five years after returning. The rules seem to get very rare reviews for relevance.
  • Our hotel in the Shockoe Slip section of Richmond was so new it wasn't known by Google Maps, but I couldn't stop obsessing over the two call buttons for three lifts. Even more bizarre was how it took me three days on the same block to realise I had stayed at the hotel previously occupying the space on the last weekend I worked at my previous company three years ago. This revelation came when I deja vu-ed in a very unique coffee shop on the tiny cul de sac directly opposite the hotel.
  • Tuscan-beer.jpgI witnessed the UK version of power-washing when a crew of men with hard bristle brushes smothered a nearby brick building to remove all filth without damaging the mortar.
  • I carried two toddlers, in their strollers, up a flight of stairs so long to reach the Piazzale Michelangelo that I passed at least five people sitting and resting on their own. I didn't learn anything here, other than how stupid an idea it was to take this route.
  • While still in Richmond, hearing that some locals still say 'the South will rise again.' gave me frightening visions of some areas of Northern Ireland decades from now.
  • When driving to the great Dublin Airport, I noticed the strange differences in fuel prices: in NI, diesel was £1.18 and unleaded was £1.11; in ROI, diesel was 1.33 and unleaded was 1.44. Are the fuel tariffs this dramatically different that consumers should be encouraged to cross the border to fill their tanks?
  • I once again had my World MasterCard declined once in the middle of a large number of purchases throughout Tuscany, but never had a single issue using my personal American Express in SF, Newark, Richmond, and Boston within a fifteen-day period.
  • Staying in an old stone villa in hot summer conditions demonstrated just how much our modern houses of 'space age materials' have failed us. The interior was always a comfortable room temperature without air conditioning.
  • Thanks to the aforementioned extended sickness through the family, I now don't know exactly how you politely use tissues in the US, UK, or Italy, but what I do know is this new development of thyme essence in travel tissue packs is disturbing. Is it supposed to be more pleasant to barely smell anything before suddenly smelling far too much of a single herb?
  • After reaching the leaning tower of Pisa so often targeted by the Simpsons and any other show with time travel jokes, I opted not to pay triple the price of other attractions so I could wait 90 minutes to climb the inside stairwell without my banned kids.
  • While it didn't keep me healthy this month, I have developed the ability to ration exhaustion like some sort of video game health points, and as a 'bonus': while sleeping to obtain these sleep points, nothing can wake me.

Beer and more of my OCD

Prior to volunteering at, and subsequently attending, Belfast's newest beer festival (ABV15) over the long weekend, I was shocked to discover how broadly Italy embraced the craft beer phenomenon. In Firenze alone, we found two separate 'birrotecas', which roughly translates to 'beer bars', and each had selections from Belgium, Italy, and the US which did not disappoint. Every Italian supermarket, while stocking dozens of delicious Chianti options for under 5, also offered high quality 'birra artigianale' for enjoyment in your hotel or villa.

The first sign I noticed at the RSA Conference was one with a 'transporation' typo.

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Our entire team is excited to open the new Rapid7 Belfast office this Friday. If you've been holding your visit until after we move, you'll really love the new location, layout, and lighting.

As the months pass, I am shocked at how many completely unique experiences we have living in the same foreign country, but unpredictable work schedules, visits from friends and family, and regular brushes with UK bureaucrats continue to teach me more about both the nascent and active human brain.

 

Three solitary missions

Just as I published last month's blog, I was on a two-day solo trip to represent Rapid7 at the Gartner IAM Summit in London. Before arriving, I already knew how bizarre the timing was to fly away from Northern Ireland for the day before the rest of the world (or, realistically, the Northeastern US) stops and celebrates as they think Ireland does. My taxi driver felt the most important detail about my hotel was its twenty-four hour bar, but my need to explore and see something brought more fun than anything at the hotel. While noticing that London's world-famous buses are counter-balancing other parts of the world by heavily converting to hydrogen power, I managed to somehow get invited to a phenomenal meal with a misspelled menu [OCD, remember?], meet a local beer geek who guided me towards the great craft beer selection at The Understudy in the National Theatre, and acknowledge my roots by eating (deep-fried) devilled whitebait.

Menu-spelling.jpgdevilled-whitebait.jpg

As our first visiting friend of this year explored Dublin with my wife for a couple days of the four-day Easter Weekend, I experienced something for the first time: eight hours to explore Belfast alone. It was strange, but uneventful, as I enjoyed breakfast at a coffee shop and went shopping. It was my version of shopping, though. I went to five shops in two hours and left with everything I needed, but know very little about the other items offered there.

Deutschland! More than the country who ruined Brazil's World Cup

Fancy-evidence.jpgJust as the holiday weekend was ending, I awoke to my three o'clock alarm to meet 'my driver' (so described to emphasize my fanciness) for my pre-dawn flight from Dublin to Munich. It was clear the weekend hadn't officially ended when my dog erupted at my driver and growled at three drunk twenty-somethings smoking their last cigarettes of the long weekend. I choked down a barely edible 'pain chocolat' in coach on Lufthansa before connecting in Frankfurt with a pleasant surprise: I now have a 100% upgrade rate on domestic flights in Germany to go with a 0% rate elsewhere in the world. Such a small little receipt meant so much more about Germans recognizing my business classiness than any United Airlines status achievement of the past. Upon ending this brief parabola of a flight, I stepped over to a geldautomat to lift some Euros that proved almost unnecessary because, unlike in Belfast, a majority of Munich businesses accept American Express. For example, my crazy taxi ride from the airport cost me half as much as the same from Heathrow to Westminster Bridge and processed my card in real-time. How novel.

 

In my 27 hours in Munich, I had to constantly fight my OCD twinge to call long distance and remove the voicemail notification from the top of my phone. Having withstood this truly first-world version of suffering, I made some new observations while exploring the area around Marienplatz:

  • I have yet to fully grasp the common skill in Continental Europe of knowing a stranger's first language from a glance. I know we Americans tend to stand out even when not wearing New York Yankees gear and cowboy hats, but I love watching the success rate of speaking French, German, English, or Spanish to patrons and jealously want to go to there. Today, I have only expanded to recognizing Americans and other English-speakers from a distance versus everyone else (hint: it's mostly in the lip movement).
  • Mobile data fees leave telecommunications companies with no excuse to lose money. In every country, the same phenomenon occurs: locals and foreigners, alike, pay to constantly have a data connection.
  • Dogs are allowed in most bars and restaurants in Munich. The signs actually tell you to be a responsible pet owner and otherwise leave them home. Jealous again.
  • I am not sure anything in the world makes humans burp more than Bavarian lager.
  • Real German pretzels are addicting, with their salty, crusty outside and soft, doughy middle. It reminded me of one of my first learnings in Belfast: real pretzels use lye in the baking process. The same ingredient Tyler Durden used to teach lessons about chemical burn. This explains why US pretzels are always fall a bit short.
  • Cab drivers in Germany can have just as unforgettable body odor as in any other country. I'm not sure why this surprised me.

I then returned to Dublin (in coach) only to spend roughly 27 panicked minutes running around the airport with a useless internet connection but no cellular signal. Others have told me I'm crazy, but in the past year of travelling across two continents, this was the only time my phone has ever failed to register to the first three available networks I tried. I finally reached my driver [get used to it] from a payphone to find he was within ten meters of me the whole time. We were four junctions up the motorway before I finally found a network and realized my phone's cellular antenna was not the problem.

Security vs. usability: everywhere you look

A constant struggle for anyone at Rapid7 is making things usable and legitimately secure. I don't use this space to discuss this, but a couple of events this month really stood out to me along these lines.

When I finally experienced business class, I was provided a delightful authentic European breakfast with cold cuts, cheeses, and fruit. Alongside this meal? A full set of real, metal flatware. Having been forced to use plastic knives everywhere from airport restaurants to coach, I was especially disturbed by this version of security theatre. Don't let anyone have knives unless they fly business class? Are we supposed to think the people furthest from the cockpit are a greater threat with a butter knife? Ugh. Give me back my knife when I order a meal in the airport, please.

Two ridiculous new usability nightmares I experienced in the UK are both aiming to improve security, but instead making progress extremely more difficult. I mentioned our need to get a driving licence here at some point. I am not sure how we are going to accomplish with our current schedules because of three factors: they only accept a few EU licences as a direct transfer, they require a passport for proof of identity, and they need to send US passports (for four weeks via post) to the US consulate for identity proofing. The consulate does not provide in-person passport validation. The other joke of attempted security is the painful electricity top-up process I've previously deconstructed here has improved its susceptibility to cracking by changing your 20-digit code you need to manually enter into your meter to a 40-digit code. The maximum top-up is £175. I must hate being secure.

Continually confused in a place that confuses so many Americans

Buckfast-saga-continues.jpgThe longer I live in Northern Ireland, the broader the range of questions I hear demonstrating how much a territory being a part of the United Kingdom, but separated by a body of water confuses Americans. It may never change, but completely different things on this land continue to test my adaptability:

  • I nearly went blind violating every rule we are taught about watching a solar eclipse because whether I looked at a reflection, through my phone's camera, or directly with a 'protective squint', I saw nothing but a hazy bright sun.
  • I saw more bottles of Budweiser in hand and on the streets than anything Irish for the St. Patrick's Day celebration in Belfast.
  • My wife learned not to buy slim fit t-shirts at the Guinness store because the size larger than I normally wear accentuated my appendix.
  • On Easter Monday, we took our US friend (who knew her facts about Northern Ireland) away from the most barren Belfast I've seen to a ridiculously crowded Portrush and Giant's Causeway. These places are relatively empty on beautiful summer weekends.
  • A study I recently read described our brain remembering peaks of pain or pleasure more than the long-term state. This could not have involved Belfast residents because I think back 30 days and remember a day involving 4 distinct hail storms and a couple absolutely gorgeous days in early spring. Ask them? Grey and rainy.
  • My long-running photojournalism project on 'Buckfast in the wild' made progress when I discovered a pair. I always thought a single bottle was enough.
  • I spent five minutes reading online in a SPAR (not a Eurospar) to see if distilled malt vinegar was close enough to white vinegar for my wife's recipe. Turns out, it's chemically different, but close enough for a lovely potato salad.

 

As a final note, this blog and I were recently quoted in an article asking whether Belfast is the Information Security capital of Europe. I'm so shameless in my self-promotion that I won't even bury this in a narrative.

While I am writing this from London, I believe I just completed my longest travel-free stint as a Northern Ireland resident, so I can finally write a post without any whingeing about airports or taxis. This does mean that I have a lot more daily life whinges than you may have thought possible in a single month, so I'll just set your expectations there.

 

Speaking less American

I usually reserve my OCD nitpicking for the end, but I like messing with the [complete lack of a] formula to entertain myself. As my wife and I attempt to use the English that people can understand while we are home, I continue getting strange looks when I discuss my "pants" (because they're trousers), but most of our learnings are a little more subtle:

  • It is almost expected that kerbs will be lower here, so you always have to look for signs through your windscreen to avoid wrecking a tyre.
  • I have yet to see any dishes containing shrimp, but my sea bass dinner last night was served with small prawn.
  • We ordered a delicious aubergine appetizer recently without knowing it was made with eggplant.
  • I get a lot of blank stares when I tell taxis "I live a few blocks south on Malone", but they immediately accelerate when I say "up the Malone Road".
  • Can anyone please explain what "disabling giddiness" is? It is a health concern listed on driver licence applications.

It is not always easy, but our daughters have enough challenges learning to speak English without us screwing it up by throwing in American terms at home, so we'll keep trying.

 

Better

pancake-tuesday.jpgI am not sure if I was just missing out on the phenomenon in the States, but when US college students are busy crawling through filthy New Orleans streets in search of beads and their forgotten hotels, the UK is enjoying Pancake Tuesday. I frequently mention sample sizes here, but I have experienced each once and my thin pancake with the perfect amount of back bacon and (real maple) syrup on the pancake is now my annual goal for the occasion. A highly unrelated, but happy surprise for me is that UK shoe sizes are perfectly shifted from the US: I never know if I will be a twelve or thirteen until I learn the brand, but in the UK, size twelve shoes are roughly between the two and always a perfect fit.

 

Somehow, in the US, we have reached the point where we just expect every consumer "bonus" to be the bare minimum. If you have a loyalty card, it often states the maximum priced coffee the tenth purchase rewards you; if you see a sign saying $1 coffee, it has fine print explaining all of the exclusions. I use these examples because the coffee chain with which I have a loyalty card in Belfast, Clements, always tries to give me a large cappuccino for the free one. I actually have to tell them I want the small one. And coffee for £1? Well, at Arthur's Coffee House, this can be filter coffee, an americano, cappuccino, flat white, made-up-coffee-type, it doesn't matter. I mean, really, why would you have so much fine print for your loyal customers?

 

I am now convinced the combination of egg and bacon is shamefully difficult to obtain in the US. Similarly, you need to learn how to use FFS - as a hashtag, as a response to my comments, or just when you watch the news. Thanks to our placement students, I also located a new, higher quality streaming site for Archer. We'll see how long this one remains online.

 

Beer

I finally had the opportunity to attend a second Belfast Beer Club meeting and I am excited to say that craft beer is just about to explode here. Without a doubt, my brewery is currently fermenting a major step down the right path. And while I nearly ate Burger King on my walk home from our mostly Beavertown tasting, I resisted the urge and opted for some delicious, un-Americanized Chinese food.

 

Worse

It might sound like more endless whingeing, but I thoroughly do not understand why people still build brand new bathrooms with distinct hot and cold taps. When I saw this in our townhouse, I assumed it was just old plumbing, but Pure Gym's two-month old locker room forces me to scald my left hand while freezing the right (as I refuse to fill the sink just to wash my hands).

 

A lot of events occur during any ten-month period of time, but it feels like the extent is rarely recognized until our current combination of physical distance and instant communication are introduced. I recently lost an uncle and, while I certainly have not attended every funeral in my life, it never really felt like a possibility to attend his celebration in the States. Despite occasionally travelling across the Atlantic, it seems impossible on short notice. I guess I never thought about how much planning goes into international travel.

cc-declined.jpg


Payment card logic

As a continuation of the running gag of using payment cards with modern chips that still require an antiquated, inconvenient, and useless signature, my US credit card company (that finally sent credit cards after inexplicably cancelling them) has now demonstrated the thoroughly logical rule of declining every transaction that comes within too few minutes of two others. This led to my lovely discovery that my UK debit card incurs a fee when used in the Republic of Ireland, surely because the imaginary line between nations charges a sizable fee. Do banks ever audit their fraud rules?

 

Different

I just got a social insurance number (so I'm being tracked more) and noticed how differently Americans and Europeans view privacy. I have always been jealous of the increased online privacy here, but it is strange just how much is recorded on video. I know some states have cameras for speeding tickets, but when a coworker got fined for averaging 36 in a 30 between two cameras in Northern Ireland, it reminded me of the ban on the same use of technology to catch speeders in Massachusetts. Speeding can be a little confusing, too, when you can cross an imaginary line and suddenly change from travelling at 80 to 128. On our aforementioned shopping trip to the Republic, it was a lovely nineteen degrees (C), but we couldn't really enjoy it because of gale force winds.

 

All about timing

For twenty years, I went to the gym in the evening, but since my US coworkers (read: bosses) are just hitting their strides then, I have adjusted to visiting the gym before lunch. With the March Equinox about to hit, the sun is already waking our daughters earlier, but the crazy US decision to change the clocks three weeks before the rest of the world has already been confusing for our office and some of our vendors. I just brought my family on another exploration Sunday to Mount Stewart, which happened to be the national Mother's Day - the different dates internationally had the unintentional result of some of us failing to properly appreciate mothers twice in a year.

 

 

The Belfast office is in the middle of pretty major hiring binge, so random days are chaotic with interviews and visitors from the States, but with the World Cyber Security Technology Research Summit this week, BelTech 2015 in late April, and both BSides Belfast and ABV Fest coming in May, it is a great time to be here.

It has been over six months since I took a break from ranting about travel inanities and the surprising number of differences between two highly similar cultures, so I am using this month's post to demonstrate why integrating into a new culture (even if very similar) offers the enjoyment and learning opportunities of a second childhood.

 

Adaptation

I read a lot about how the human brain works, but I have yet to find an explanation for the phenomenon I recently experienced for the first time as an adult: my best attempt at describing it is an overwhelming rush of unfamiliarity that prevented me from noticing anything close to my typical level of detail in my surroundings (or as Gladwell might describe it, my "thin-slicing" ability was impaired). This may be something unique to me, but I either never felt it when visiting new culture or I've never stayed long enough to realise it had occurred. I can now use hindsight to judge how lost we were when looking for housing or choosing a child-friendly place to grab lunch and recognise how incompetent I was. It is more than just the challenges of getting a bank account here; it was the anxiety from trying to purchase something when I was unsure they'd accept your payment. Comparing that to a recent situation when both my fee-free US debit and credit cards had security blocks placed on them (because I was such a risk while using them ONLY in Belfast for six months), I laugh at that prior anxious feeling. I might have had to scramble around for cash like a teenager, but I still remembered to use my Tesco Club card to save 20p per litre of fuel [it's diesel, not gasoline] and subsequently managed with a Visa Electron card for a couple weeks.

Danger-dock.jpg

Driving

One of the first questions about adaptation that everyone asks is "what is it like to drive there?" and I have written about this some, with regard to both myself and my wife, but I actually feel like a better driver having done so. I love the tighter city lanes and the unwritten rules here for letting head-on cars pass on a crowded road and parking in a spot across a lane of oncoming traffic because why would I care which way the car is facing while parked? I still think the signs are the biggest adjustment, but we'll find out if my comfort with parallel parking on the left side of the road is justified when my wife and I have to take a UK driving test to continue legally driving here. I may be ranting about having been ill prepared for that in a few months. No matter the outcome, I will continue to enjoy making educated guesses at the meaning of signs like "gritting in progress" and, even more so, seeing how well signs make their point that driving off a dock is not good.

 

Nature & historical sites

Black-mountain-pan.jpgSurprised by recent warm Sunday [11 degrees!], my wife and I decided to venture up to Black Mountain to see the city from the coldest possible location. I am not sure why, but the lush green color of the Emerald Isle never fails to impress me, especially in the heart of winter (but more on that later). This demonstrated ability to explore so many nearby sites within an hour's drive makes it easy to see something new every weekend. I haven't explored so many windy, one-laned roads since my first few years with a car in Vermont. Other recent adventures have been to Castle Ward (where the pictured tunnel can be found) and the gorgeous seaside farms of Killough.Castle-Ward.jpg Buckfast-earth.jpg

 

If that wasn't enough to learn more about nature, my ongoing obsession with Buckfast bottles in their natural habitat rewarded me with a picture of the caged bottle from my November blog becoming one with the Earth. Now, I just find myself wondering if there is some centralized pool beneath the city filled with this unique tonic wine, and if so, if that is what makes the grass so green around the city.

 

Toys & candy

It is possibly a coincidence over my newly childlike mindset, but my daughters got some Magformers for Christmas and I cannot stop playing with those things. There is supporting evidence that it's not just the toys, though, since the addition of Nerf guns to our cramped "temporary" Belfast office has restored my inner instigator to the point where I get uncomfortable when I have no ammunition on my desk. On a slightly related note, I was recently directed to a sanity-saving website hosting the latest episodes of "Archer" and my joy lasted a full three weeks before it was taken down by some fun-killing organisation somewhere. I will save the rant, but how is this country surviving without an animated series about a booze-guzzling secret agent with mommy issues?

 

Candy is a whole new topic: not only are you bombarded with adverts from MAOAM whenever you turn on the tele, but Haribo is huge here and seeing rope licorice in the office always reminds me of Garth Algar. With the abundance of fine milk chocolate treats mostly wasted on my strange palate, I occasionally peruse the walls of candy unfamiliar to me and recently noticed a treat I used to enjoy with my grandfather: Rolo. Do we still have that in the States or was it abandoned in the whole "replace unhealthy treats with other unhealthy treats that contain less natural sugar" era?

February-grass.jpg

Seasons

While I have already been called a "smug git" by a fellow expat (who moved in the opposite direction), I have to say how enjoyable it has been to live in a place where winter consists of roughly two weeks of frosted sidewalks during my morning walk. I wasn't fully able to avoid the Winter Storm Juno rhetoric because I tracked it online to understand its impact on our executive team's scheduled visit to Belfast and England, but the weeks since that storm have quieted all of my early "same as every year" comments and caused me to recognize the serendipity of this being my first winter outside of New England. While the summers in Northern Ireland may have more rain than most people prefer, the other ten months of the year are the equivalent to a New England spring. It feels new enough that I took a photograph of the February grass in the Manor where we reside. I fully expect to end up in the hospital next winter when I attempt to shovel snow after a year of the corresponding muscles turning to MAOAM gummy candy.

 

Trust in people

The final, long-term deja vu I have experienced is the need to trust more people based on less evidence. I have "learned" multiple things about Belfast from taxi drivers. I commonly find myself asking follow-up questions to servers at restaurants and coffee shops. It even took me longer than I expected to see through the bullsh*t [censored by the blog platform, not Rapid7] some people feed us all on a daily basis. This all pales in comparison to figuring out if someone else is using common slang or just has an unbelievably strong accent. I remember first discovering the power of sarcasm and slang as a kid, but I had nearly forgotten the great craic others enjoy when taking advantage of my naivete. Fortunately for me [not those of you reading this who would likely find it hilarious], it has yet to lead to any financial losses among my anecdotes about being an American Idiot - just more adaptation.

Welcome back to the crazy adventure that is my family's life across two continents. I flew on flybe to London two days after one of their planes had an engine fire over Northern Ireland, but it was predictably uneventful, so I have a lot more to say about our "home visit" for the holidays just nine days before I returned to Boston for work in the unlivable -7 degrees (C) with ~20% humidity.

 

Luxurious international travel

I briefly touched on the entire family traveling back to the States  a few months ago, but I didn't go into any detail about the process itself. I have gotten so good at navigating two Smart Cartes that I am thinking about going pro. Since I travel a lot, I happen to rely heavily on TripIt and value its notifications for delays, cancellations, and the inevitable gate change in Newark airport. Having prepared ourselves for the hell that four hours of layovers in Newark were guaranteed to emulate, I was happy to see a 45-minute delay for our plane to depart Belfast International. With a pile of bags, I called our taxi and adjusted the sensible two-hour window back accordingly. However, upon arriving at the airport, we were told by the United Airlines flight crew there were no queues because check-in was about to close. Apparently, flight check-in needs to be complete one hour prior to scheduled departure, without exception. To keep with the theme, the United crew in Newark demanded that I sign the signature page of my daughters' passports before they would accept it as a legal document and let us get on the plane home to Belfast. This was our fifth international flight with these passports. They are three years old. I love logical rules.

 

Through sickness and chaos

When your family of four is partially surrounded by three people with food poisoning [rows of six mean that one of us is with two strangers], I would have hoped for a better vetting process for their flightworthiness than "are you sure you can last five and a half hours?" As you might expect, the family slowly transitioned to the rear of the plane to stay close to the toilets, but that didn't save me from an hour spent sterilizing a few shoes and the sides of our seats and bags. You'll be happy to know that according to our flight attendant (who had already shown signs of incompetence), he "is not qualified to clean vomit" and "not allowed to touch it". Luckily, it never spread to anyone in my family, as I have no idea what process of diagnosis was followed to determine they had food poisoning.restaurant-ipad.jpg

 

No matter how bothered you think you get when someone's kid is screaming in an airport or on your plane, I can assure you that most of us are twice as bothered/stressed/embarrassed by our own kids reaching this point. Before the first time, my wife and I clearly established the standard operating procedure of "abandon normal rules" while travelling by air. While in the airports, this means a tablet can be viewed on tables, on chairs, and, if the "Riviera" restaurant in EWR terminal C ever gets it together, in the restaurant. You see, this restaurant had the great idea to let its patrons order via iPads placed on each table, and then use them to search the internet, check on their flights, and peruse a decent craft beer selection (I had a Saison Dupont because I'm fancy). The only problem is that you can access YouTube and keep a toddler content with muted videos, but you need to constantly touch the screen because the entire system restarts if you do not interact for five minutes. It doesn't matter if you ordered food or not. Apparently, if your flight is not for another three hours and you're waiting for food, you still have no interest in using the iPad unless you hit 'refresh' every four minutes and 59 seconds. When on flights, abandoning normal rules means having a very wide selection of snacks, coloring books, and magnetic puzzles to hopefully curb any tantrum that emerges from the exhaustion.

 

Sample size of two

I purposely don't say much about my children in this blog for various reasons, but I want to use them to help illustrate some lessons that I hope can benefit future parents who choose to travel long distances with young children. Scientists that study anything with the remote possibility of being hereditary have based studies around identical twins for years. There was a sizable National Geographic article on this fact a couple of years ago. Being a rather curious person, I have learned a lot through trial-and-error and A-B testing with our identical twins. For example: we have sippy cups with red, green, and blue caps. Every morning, we place watered down juice near the girls' room in two of these cups because they love juice while they collect themselves. This led to an "experiment":

  • If the options are 'red cap' and 'green cap', toddler A grabs 'green' and toddler B calls 'red' hers.
  • If the options are 'green' and 'blue', A picks up 'blue' and B grabs 'green'.
  • If they are 'red' and 'blue', A gets 'red' and B demands 'blue'.

I have witnessed this same decision over and over. There is never any fighting, but rather polite handing of specific cups to the right sister. 'Red' and 'green' seem to be the most desirable. What does this mean? I have no idea, but it fascinates me.


airplane-seatbelt.jpgAnyway, my entire point of this tangent was that having two children with identical DNA helps you to learn what not to do, so you can tweak your approach, and sometimes, when rational thought should be thrown away. Trying to stick with your toddler's potty training while on a transatlantic flight? A rational conversation works 50% of the time. A flight attendant demands toddlers wear a seatbelt that slides off their legs because FAA rules set age limits while the NHTSA uses more logical weight limits for car seats? DO NOT TELL THEM TO WEAR IT! Just ask if they can figure it out. Like to swing your kids around to hear the excited giggles, but always make sure not to yank a shoulder out of joint? 50% will still end up with you in the Emergency Room on Boxing Day to have the doctor perform a "reduction" to resolve a case of Nursemaid's Elbow.

 

"Studies" debunked

An amazing aspect of scientific theories is that the community needs to create some experiments solely to disprove them before they gain acceptance. This is why reporters, politicians, and sales people using terms like "people are saying" and "studies show" are unbearable. They leave no possibility to reject findings or opinions. The Jordan's Furniture brothers love using "studies show you must get eight hours of sleep a night and you can't catch up later" to hawk their wares. Rubbish that preys on the availability cascade.

 

Red eye flights are exhausting, but only because of the 3-4 hours of sleep before starting a new day. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's theory is that the human body is "antifragile", i.e. it gets stronger when confronted with a reasonable amount of fluctuation in diet, sleep, etc. Results from weightlifting support this theory, while swinging toddlers by the arms do not (unless my daughter now has a stronger elbow). Doing some push-ups or other exercise when you get to a new time zone instead of immediately napping is shockingly effective and eases adjustment when combined with staying awake until 23:00 the first night. Well, you can't get toddlers to do push-ups (usually), but you can help them make up for the shift easier than you'd think. It seems that a child who normally sleeps eleven hours and naps for two can catch up by sleeping four hours on a flight across five time zones, taking a five-hour nap, and sleeping thirteen hours the next night. I learned math in the US, but I guess 11+2+11 = 4+5-5+13... or something. Either way, it was nice to sleep until 10:25 on Saturday.

 

More trivial observationsNoon-sun.jpg

Having had the Internet throughout my adult life, I continue to find it hard to imagine the significant isolation over hundreds of years that caused two nations as similar as the US and UK to create such independent and oddly different notions of normal.Let me cover a few minor observations before giving a final topic the paragraph I think it deserves:

  • If you happen to return to your Belfast townhouse on a cold day after an extended time away, it is shocking how slow it will reach a comfortable temperature without storm windows or proper weather stripping - something I took for granted while living in New England.
  • When you want to give a child a treat for lunch in the US, some choose a "fluffernutter" sandwich - the equivalent in Belfast appears to be a Nutella and marshmallow crepe.
  • After returning, I was out at noon and happened to notice how low on the horizon the sun was. I took a picture of a three-story building blocking it at noon. I mentioned how far north we are before, but this somehow still shocked me.
  • Somehow, when supermarkets started in the US and the UK, their founders took completely opposing approaches to what it meant to turn on the light at the till / checkout counter.
  • I travelled to London for a day trip [very cool that this is so easy] and exchanged my Northern Irish pounds at the airport. No exchange rate. No fee. Just a simple swap that is normal here.
  • Buckfast-2.jpgWe need to stop paying for corn subsidies in the US. The unexpected corn ingredient is the only discernible difference I could find between most foods that gave us more questionable stomachs while home.
  • Toilet. If you are American, that word probably sounds dirty because it describes an object. Here, it is a clean word like "bathroom".
  • In the nineties, we were told that the US was going to convert everything to metric to join the rest of the planet. Well, that never happened, and apparently, the UK champions its own approach to units of measurement because they use metric for short distances (meters), weight of goods (kg), and milk/gasoline (litres) vs. imperial for long distances (miles), the weight of some objects (pounds), beer (pint) and body weight (stone). In case you think you are familiar enough with imperial volume to fit in immediately, you should know that imperial volumes are larger in the UK than the US for the same units.

 

Last month, I covered the disturbing development of Black Friday shopping coming to the UK. Soon after I wrote this, I found out about the Belfast custom of "Black Eye Friday". I also heard that a housewife described it as "Black Friday", but its description properly explained both and I don't want it getting confused with shopping in massive crowds. This intriguing tradition is the last Friday before Christmas each year when a great deal of coworkers leave the office early for a solid eight to twenty hours of drinking together before the holidays. The Belfast office did not officially participate, but we did have a "swapping santa" gift exchange that is similar to a yankee swap, except for a couple of rules and the fact that two bottles of Buckfast were gifted. The name "Black Eye Friday" comes from the high frequency of individuals to air their grievances with colleagues, leading to a noticeable number of fistfights when the constructive feedback is not well received. "Black Friday" was used to describe this same evening because the night is a black hole for communication when families are home wondering what the employed spouses could be doing and when/if they will be home. Take that, boring American Black Friday and your measly fistfights over 4k televisions.

My last post of idiocy in 2014 is going to be consistent with my prior schizophrenic ramblings. I once again bounced between my country of residence (Northern Ireland), country of birth (United States), and country of ancestry (England), but most of what I experienced was independent of the location, so I am organizing it in a different way. I've graduated to giving directions to locals and becoming part owner of a local brewery, but those topics don't fit my chosen narrative for the month, so on with it:

 

Expectations of European-ness

As a child of the United States, I grew up with this idea of Europe as being a more literate part of the world that laughed at the average American's geography knowledge. The European Union was some sort of new version of society that brought together very different cultures and united them under a common goal of appreciating each other's differences and not becoming the United States as they make life better together. I just don't find that the countries in Europe appreciate each other's customs as much as I anticipated (and, excluding politics, it tends to adopt more US-like behaviour than I expected).

Merry-from.jpg

 

Belfast Christmas [almost like the Spring] Market

Belfast loves Christmas. I was the strange foreigner last Friday walking around Belfast streets without a Christmas jumper. According to my wife's experience, November and December shopping here is a continuous onslaught of crowds in every shopping plaza, worldwide chain, and niche shop you can find. Given this and the many signs around Belfast displaying either "Merry Christmas Belfast", "Happy Christmas Belfast", or "Merry from Belfast Christmas" [sorry- I hate signs that jumble the words to be cool], I am a little surprised that the Belfast Christmas Market in front of City Hall is only in its tenth year of existence. My first experience with Christmas markets was on a trip to Munich and Berlin with my wife a few Decembers ago. In Germany, the combination of small stands and walk-through shops offer numerous types of handmade crafts, toys, and festive decorations whose origins are unlikely to be forgotten. Oh, plus mulled wine (or gluhwein) is a hot, spiced wine that would probably be disgusting if you tried to drink it anywhere else, but is perfect while walking around an outdoor market on a German December day.xmas-market-1.jpg

 

Contrast this experience with the Belfast Christmas Market and you quickly see how little the European Union is the melting pot I imagined while visiting in two-week stints. The market is very festive and very enjoyable, but it has a lot more in common with the Spring Market (in the same location in May) than any Christmas market I visited in Germany. All of the stands were built from scratch the week before it opened, which is very cool, but there are only two to three that are pitching holiday gifts. The vast majority of stands are the same crepe/jerk/paella/[insert other random non-UK food] stand that you see every weekend at St. George's Market and every other outdoor seasonal market. There is mulled wine and mulled cider, so that's great, but there are also two beer tents that closely resemble the beer tents from spring, except for the fact that one of them is primarily selling beers from Paulaner. I love this chance to have some authentic German beer in Belfast, but noticed that most people in the Paulaner tent are drinking fruit-infused beers (that I have never seen before) rather than one of the many excellent Hacker-Pschorr brews or the no-longer-true "strongest beer in the world".

 

End of Days - Black [meaningless November] Friday

black-friday.jpgI cannot even tell you the purpose of Black Friday in the US, but I first remember hearing about it around ten years ago. A few friends started to mention that their grandparents take advantage of the extra rest that comes with the increased tryptophan levels from embarrassing amounts of turkey [I know it's a myth] and red wine on Thanksgiving to start their Christmas shopping at the first sign of daylight. Somehow, this has devolved into an assault on Americans deal-seekers to become an need to leave Thanksgiving dinner to wait in a queue for hours to potentially grab a discounted Xbox One or, alternatively, a criminal record when your exhaustion forces you to batter the person in front of you that gets the last one.

 

You can imagine my delight when Thanksgiving was approaching and I began seeing adverts for Black Friday in Belfast [like the one pictured to the right]. I never imagined that Europe would want it, but it seems that Black Friday has been such a success state-side that The Kingdom just had to have some of that physical-confrontation-and-mediocre-deals-at-early-hours goodness. The main part that I don't understand is why anyone here would take time off from work for this "event", since the initial logic was that you are going to be away from the office anyway, yet Thanksgiving is just another Thursday here.

 

Expectations of latitude

When I first visited Belfast ten months ago to judge my family's ability to adjust, I noticed how much milder the winter was without thinking about just how much farther north it is than the Boston area. Being twelve degrees farther north as we quickly approach the Winter Solstice hints that this is not a good year-round home for those prone to depression. There will be seven hours and fifteen minutes of "sunlight" this coming Sunday, which is closer to the five hours and fifty-four minutes in St. Petersburg than the nine hours and four minutes that Boston will see. I did experience a beautiful 8:30 sunrise on my recent coastal ride to the Dublin airport, but my phone unfortunately failed to capture anything at our rate of speed.

 

mid-dec-moss.jpgIntuitively, being as far north of Boston as Boston is north of New Orleans would make you expect to have a longer winter. Instead, as you can learn from climatologists, worldwide weather patterns are not that simple, so there is a much longer period of awkwardly choosing the wrong coat each morning. It is cold enough to justify a great deal of heating this time of year, yet I had trouble finding a decent humidifier to balance the dryness (without causing mold to grow) because the climate is also a lot wetter than the Northeast US, as the bright green moss next to major city roads demonstrates.

 

Expectations of time

I have recently been obsessed with how great it is to be living in the future. We definitely didn't know what 2015 would be like in 1985 (as you can see by re-watching "Back to the Future II"), but it is thrilling to be able to simultaneously watch "Guardians of the Galaxy" and talk to a coworker in the office while sitting on a plane over the Atlantic Ocean. To the contrary, while I find it hard to estimate the passage of time being so far away from typical annual events, this doesn't explain the "frozen in time" feeling you get when you drive just minutes from Belfast to places like the Giant's Ring or Islandmagee. One is an ancients structure built by an early civilization (or aliens, if you believe "Stargate" is a work of nonfiction), and the other is an isolated little farm community on the east coast of Northern Ireland that has black sheep, white sheep, black-and-white sheep, and even mating sheep, which is great for toddlers to witness as you drive passed.

 

Somewhere between "the future" and "pre-dates the wheel" is the transportation situation around London. This feels reminiscent of my earlier blogs when I whinged about travelling inefficiencies, but I went through my own version of "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles", minus the humour, in which I noticed:

  • the fastest way to get from our Reading office to Heathrow airport is to take a taxicab to a train to the Heathrow Express train - you can use your mobile phone to purchase tickets for one of those
  • travelling around London is easier by switching from rail to multiple lines of "The Tube" than by road
  • British Airways provides kiosks in LHR, which I made the assumption are intended to simplify the ticketing process. However, I was in a group of ten people across three flights that received a print out stating "your seat could not be assigned" and assumed this meant I was about to be offered for money to take the next flight. Instead, we stood for thirty minutes and were handed boarding passes in time to rush through security. No explanation, just a lost thirty minutes without a meal.

 

Hopefully, I will be more positive in 2015, but I can't make any promises. We'll be travelling to and from Boston, with extra long layovers in Newark, so I doubt my next update is going to be "all sunshine and lollipops".

Welcome back to my chosen place to ramble about the many random things my family and I encounter while living FAR to the northeast of our long-time Boston-area home. The past month has been more about settling than exploring, so I have three mostly unrelated topics to highlight.

 

The Dutch

Just after publishing my last blog, I joined others from the Rapid7 UK offices [there are two!] on a trip to Black Hat Europe. If you want to read more about the event, the highlights were captured here by someone more eloquent than me. I am mentioning this trip because it was my first visit to the Netherlands. Having spent about ten days in Belgium only a few years ago, my expectations for Amsterdam were somewhere between the biased descriptions from the Segway-bus.jpgBelgians who hate Dutch beer and the ridiculous stereotype Mike Myers portrayed as "Goldmember". Well, neither of those examples prepared me for the culture that I witnessed. I didn't even see any restaurants offering "a smoke and a pancake."

 

The Dutch love bicycles. I mean, you cannot walk anywhere in Amsterdam without seeing rows of 1970s-style bicycles locked to racks and nearly running you over as you attempt to cross the enormous bike lanes on foot. I try not to generalize, but I don't know that I have ever seen something so ubiquitous in a major city, except maybe how incredibly civilized the Dutch people appear. A coworker pointed out the construction workers we saw that were well-dressed and bent over with a hammer and absolutely no skin showing. There was an abundance of electric car charging stations and the first use of a Segway for something other than city tours and office races [picture on the right]. Additionally, at the conference building, the exhibitor hall was on the first floor and when someone on the ground floor pressed the elevator call button and selected "1", the loud speaker very unapologetically stated "use the escalator."

 

And since I now consider myself a worldwide bacon connoisseur, I have to report that Dutch bacon is very thin, like an Italian cured ham, and a bit salty. It went very well in the dish with fried eggs and lightly toasted bread, though. Add in the option to drink beer from nearby Belgium's breweries like Duvel, La Chouffe, and Affligem, and I would happily visit the Netherlands again.

 

Six Months of Adaptation

Having now lived in Belfast for almost exactly six months, I think that the novelty has worn off. I no longer blink when I see shops that are either imitating or localizing US brands, such as "Mr. Muscle" cleaners with a bald strongman or "Start Rite" that sells children's shoes. I don't have to think to add up 82p with coins denominations completely different from the US. It has become natural for me to refer to my studies after high school as "uni" Buckfast-caged.jpgor "university" over the oft-used "college" in the US. I have started to question whether I am overusing the letter "zed" and underusing the letter "u". I cared a great deal more about the Scotland vote than the MA gubernatorial elections. I seriously considered parallel parking on the opposite side of the street last weekend. I now thank the bus driver that just made me fear for my life. I am used to seeing a lot less trash on the street, but a great deal more empty Buckfast bottles when walking my dog. I no longer feel compelled to pick up my plates at casual restaurants or tip the waitstaff that has merely done a serviceable job. Also related to food, I now crave brown sauce after being away from the UK for more than 48 hours. Oh, and I found a beer club that hosts monthly tastings, so that helps.

 

The comfort level is not only felt by me, though. My wife has stopped finding it odd when she picks up a free prescription and no one asks for ID or a signature. We finally remember to bring bags with us to Tesco, M&S, or Dunnes. We have purchased as many umbrellas since moving here as the previous ten years we have known each other. We no longer look forward to Sunday night television because the great shows on HBO or AMC air on Monday and Tuesday here. And the final indicator is that we were in a hurry while car shopping and stopped at "Northern Ireland's Largest KFC Drive Thru!" for a late lunch (followed by immediate regret when it tasted as all KFC does). That day leads me to my last topic.

 

Hathaway's Hierarchy of Needs

For anyone keeping track at home, the last two needs for my family and I were gyms and an automobile. My wife found a great pilates studio and the gym I joined in August finally decided to open in Hathaway-Needs.jpglate October. Thanks to our lack of credit (which I discussed last month), we could not lease a newer vehicle for the next 14 months, so I opted to purchase a "Jeep" (the general term for SUV here) with under 100,000 miles on a diesel engine, so it should last beyond the time we are here. While I have hired and driven a Vauxhall Mokka, Hyundai i30, Vauxhall Zafira, Renault Clio, Vauxhall Astra, and probably another car you've never seen in the United States, my wife is just starting to drive on the left side of the road after six months of walking in warmer weather. It's "fun".

 

As a slightly different topic of need: I ran out of the deodorant I shipped here and found out that I am too old fashioned for this country because there is NOT A SINGLE stick of roll-on deodorant anywhere. You can get hundreds of antiperspirants and some deodorant-only sprays, but no one appears to supply (or demand) roll-on deodorant that does not also unnaturally block sweat ducts. Sorry to disgust you, but I don't find that necessary. I feel that these final touches in our adaptation to live in NI complete my version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs for adult expatriates.

 

To those of you in the States, see you in December. If you are in Northern Ireland, see you in the office on Thanksgiving. If you're in the Netherlands, sorry for sounding so uncivilized.

Another month has passed, and so I am once again capturing my experiences as a sarcastic foreigner in a country full of sarcasm. Please accept my apologies for the length, but as the oft-misunderstood Samuel Clemens once wrote: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." Rapid7 officially announced our presence here in Northern Ireland and it feels great that the teams had accomplished so much before the press release even arrived.

 

I want to start with something I had completely wrong in my Anecdotal Evidence blog: Ulster is not and has never been a county in Ireland or the United Kingdom. This means that my "county-within-a-county" rant was a waste of text, other than showing just how confusing some things are in Northern Ireland. You see: Ulster province was made up of nine counties in the Northeast of Ireland, but does not currently have an official government purpose, given that six of those countries now comprise Northern Ireland. The use of the term Ulster is now used very differently around Belfast, and if you type "ulster" into google.com (as opposed to google.co.uk), it starts to auto-complete with the county in New York, so that is likely how I got down the wrong path. Either that, or I cannot mentally process complex disputes over regions because the borders in my home state of Vermont did not change after it went from being land claimed by both New York and New Hampshire to a tiny Luxembourg-like independent nation to the fourteenth state in the late 18th century.

 

Anyway, on with the things I learned that are not completely wrong (yet). As I often do, I have a series of small observations and conclusions from my past month as an American on secondment.

 

Little Differences - There

I spent six days in Boston and Newport and left with a business traveller's view of New England (which is neither a province nor a county). It all started on two United Airlines flights that inexplicably skipped seating rows 13-19 and 13, 15-19 because apparently, in 2014, we are still afraid of the number 13 and an inconsistent number of its ill-hearted teen friends. Those counting errors were sandwiched around a situation where I had only 2 hours to make a connection between United Airlines flights in Newark airport (and it involved some running).

 

0812-uber_full_600.jpgOnce safely in New England, I worked from our Boston and Cambridge offices as a visitor and witnessed the kind of traveller's awe in Andrew Wallace that will hopefully kill off some of the heads-down cynicism that I brought on my trips in recent years. I had the pleasure of contrasting a few convenient and friendly UberX drivers with an incompetent, angry taxi driver who not only lied about the functional nature of his built-in credit card terminal, but completed the story with a makeshift sign containing Uber and a cross through it. He is doing Uber a great service.

 

Another learning experience was trying to find a time of day when I could video chat with my family, given that (a) I was five hours behind them and (b) my children are in bed three hours before I would leave a US office.

 

The trip back to Belfast was uneventful, except for the fact that a Chicago-area contract worker allegedly set a fire in the FAA's control center and tried to include himself in it. This led to regular TripIt updates telling us that our United plane was not arriving in Boston, so our connection in Newark was at risk (more so than when arson is not involved, at least). So, some Belfast charm from Roy Robinson got us on a direct Aer Lingus flight to Dublin. If you have never flown Aer Lingus, you should know that it is a unique experience: there are a ridiculous number of announcements, including incredible detail around the route over remote parts of Canada, all of which were roughly 300 times louder to those of us using the supplied headphones. they accept both Euro and US cash, and the armrest only lifts 70% of the way up for no understandable reason. At least this itinerary change had a happy ending, thanks to the fastest customs processing in the world in Dublin (where you can use your mobile phone everywhere but at the desk), especially when they hear that you are going to be the UK's problem anyway.

 

Little Differences - Here

By far, the most common question people have asked me since we moved to Belfast is "What has been the biggest difference?", so rather than continuing to bother everyone with my "not sure" response, I figured that I should use this space to finally answer the question.

  • Some quick ones:
    • External doors almost always require a push as you enter
    • Bars don't really rush you out at closing
    • All TV seasons are shorter than "True Detective", so I watched all three seasons of "Luther" in four nights
    • All digital clocks operate in 24-hour mode
    • Local phone numbers and building floors start with 0, rather than 1
  • And some using the four Ps of marketing:
    • Product
      • Milk comes in "whole", "semi-skimmed", and "skimmed" and the colours of the jugs mean totally different things than in the States
      • Ireland is known for fantastic butter, but the spreads typically come in a much more convenient package
      • No one puts cream in their coffee/tea and if you ask for "half and half", you'll get a loaf of bread
    • Place - eggs are not sold in the refrigerated section [am I the only one confused by this?]
    • Price - soft drinks (not "soda" here) are nearly as expensive as beer, so...
    • Promotion - TV adverts are spaced out differently than in the US, so watching US shows is a constant guessing game as to when to hit FF (plus Fox over here has some sort of lifetime contract with "Cool Water Night Dive" so if I buy you this cologne, I have been brainwashed)
  • Wee trips to local sites and events for children are actually catered to the customer: following our free visit to the national park in August, we had free admission to Carrickfergus castle, where toddlers can enjoy moving around giant chess pieces, and completely ignore the rule that a bishop can only move diagonally. Additionally, the local Streamvale farm and petting zoo has a variety of baby animals to pet and a surprisingly delicious lunch for less than £10.
  • defunct-sandwichbar.jpgI have recently gone from appreciating US banking and the ease of acquiring an account to despising its credit card fraud processes that I once worked to disrupt. Since obtaining a World Mastercard with no international fees, I have made thousands of pounds in purchases outside the United States. After purchasing a few hundred dollars in items while on vacation in the states, it now gets unpredictably declined over fraud concerns. Yes, I understand that I need to tell Barclaycard that I am travelling abroad, but why? Every one of the mobile and web logins to my account has been from UK IP addresses and I never needed to tell American Express, yet they accurately detected fraud on my account in New York City while I was living here (and notified me via mobile app, unlike the unpredictable Mastercard method of silently declining without notification).
  • I see more world famous people than in Boston, but I think it is purely coincidental. However, seeing Rory McIlroy take photos every 10 feet and running into Peter Dinklage and his daughter on two different Saturdays (while walking my dog and at the local playground) is a pretty significant change from seeing Newton, MA on an episode of "Louie" one time.
  • There always seems to be more available space for shops here, which is not odd, except that it seems to happen in every area of the city and even to the "sandwich bar of the year".
  • Public transportation is a little different. I previously described the efficiency of the taxi companies, but never mentioned how normal it is for fares [industry speak] to sit in the front seat of a cab, nor did I know that once university students returned, the Munich-like efficiency of the buses would shift to being less reliable than Boston buses, which are consistently three to eight minutes behind schedule. I ride either an 8B or 8C bus to the office and some mornings, nothing comes for 25 minutes, followed by two 8B buses in succession. Apparently, the BusTrak scrolling "next bus" update was rendered meaningless when the union forced Translink NI to remove GPS trackers for fear of actually identifying lousy drivers.
  • Driving on the other side of the car, and road, is not nearly as different as you would expect, but adjusting to the change in signs and driving etiquette does take a little time.
  • Time zone differences give me roughly five hours to start every day when I can do whatever it is I do, and, well, blog.
  • Thanks to laws and rough Saturday nights, Belfast is a ghost town on Sunday mornings. The more ambitious coffee shops open at 10, but some just don't bother with one-seventh of the week.
  • Some time in the past two generations (as in my grandparents' generation, not the confusing generation X, Y, millenials, etc. definitions that never help me understand who I am supposed to blame for the unraveling of society because of so many conflicting classifications putting my birth year in X and Y), the way that UK English and US English described clothing went down different paths. I still remember grandmothers referring to the currently-accepted-in-America "jeans", "sneakers", "pants", and "sweaters" as "denims", "trainers", "trousers", and "jumpers" the way everyone here does. I just don't know why the US decided that those words had to go. Additionally, the most important word in the group to avoid is "pants", as everyone will think you are saying that you got food on your underwear. Just a tip.
  • As I mentioned once before, the lack of selection of craft beer here has been noticeable. I love the taste of Guinness here, but one of my many neuroses pushes me to always look for a beer I haven't tasted before, and that is proving a challenge only a few months into my time here. The craft beer culture is starting to gain traction, but it still often resembles the kind of "our 5% lager is better than their 5% lager" mentality common to Germany, while brewers in places like the US and Scandinavia ask questions like "what if I use yeast from my beard?" and "what if I put coffee beans from the civet in it?"

 

So, I guess the biggest difference here has been the change in me. Wow... the five of you that read this far haven't been paying attention if you thought that was serious. It has definitely been living without a credit history. I know. I cheated because it wasn't a bullet point, but there are no rules to this. I am not sure how well you can multiply in your head, but take your US credit score (they range from 300 to 850), multiply it by zero and add 300. That is what your score (using the same scale) will be in any new country. Have an account with a worldwide bank like Barclays? A mortgage with a worldwide bank like Santander? Started getting small loans at 18 to build an amazing score? Good for you, kid. Same math. Enjoy your limited checking account and regularly asking someone to vouch for you.

 

With that out of the way, I am off to Black Hat Europe to see how the security conferences in Europe differ from the US. I went to Cartes outside Paris once, but that doesn't count, since the French invented smart cards and the US is still fighting against their adoption because they have perfected payment card fraud processes.