Hi again, faceless readers! After looking at my pageview counts from the past few blogs, I have decided to return to the kind of nitpicking and exposure of ridiculous inconveniences that seems to bring in the readers. Just please don't tell me that the name-dropping was the true cause.
Well, I have a lot of unrelated anecdotes and decided that, since I am always calling people out for making conclusions based on a "sample size of one" that I should stop being such a bore and join them. While I have served on some interesting juries, I am not employed as a lawyer and I have a few more years before that civic duty is once again mine. So now that I dismissed the little epidemiologist on my shoulder, here are a series of first world problems and bizarre "sitiations", as the Belfast natives would pronounce it, along with the immediate conclusion I have drawn from each:
In my last blog, I proclaimed that there are very few beggars in Belfast. Well, I still think that it is true. I think I know all five of them by face and where in the city I will run across them each day of the week. However, my wife and I witnessed a beggar that stands out among the hundreds I have encountered in my life: the wealthy, entitled beggar. I realize that those terms seem to contradict each other, but while walking from the Ulster Museum to a Sinnamon Cafe, a gentleman wearing wing-tipped shoes, a three-piece suit, leather gloves, and a cap approached us with a newspaper flat against his chest. This true gentleman asked for change as he glanced down at a cup of change he cleverly positioned in his palm below the newspaper. Too shocked to laugh in his face, we gave the standard "sorry" and look away move. Minutes later, he walked up to every patron of the cafe, including us again, with the same question before walking inside and asking the barista something. Just as I was asking who would give money to a man that is clearly doing alright, we watched a couple looked startled, make a joke, then give him some change!
Conclusion: It does in fact pay to dress for the job you want instead of the job you have.
One day, on my walk to work, I saw a confused tourist staring at his map. I asked if he needed help and quickly pointed him to Shaftesbury Sq. and the intersecting Donegall Rd. where he could find his bus, then went on my way. Two minutes later, he processed a few things and jogged a bit to catch up and ask "are you American?". I answered the Chicago backpacker's question and engaged in the sort of small talk to which I am so drawn before kindly seeing him off to his tour bus.
Conclusion: I can read a map.
Maine == Northern Ireland?
I first noticed a connection when I made a crack about moving to Belfast ("not the one in ME") in a company email where I was trying to give away my cat (he has a happy home, by the way, since you asked). I only know of two Belfasts in the world:
- My current city of residence that straddles County Antrim and County Down in Northern Ireland, both of which are inside Ulster County. Yeah, no one here can explain the double-county thing to me.
- The city on the coast of Maine with beautiful, yet frigid, ocean views.
Well, before I even had a chance to visit the beautiful ocean town of Bangor, Northern Ireland, I recognized the name of the "Queen City of the East" [thank you, Wikipedia] in central Maine. Bangor is in County Down in Ulster County, in case you were curious.
Conclusion: Maine settlers were so shocked by the ocean temperatures that they were convinced they landed in Northern Ireland after a long, circuitous boat ride.
Yes, I just made up a word. I have no idea how to describe the process of returning to your home country which houses your corporate headquarters for a work trip. Whatever you want to call it, I have now flown back to the States on two different occasions:
- After a short hop from the insanely convenient Belfast City airport (BHD) to the laughably inconvenient London Heathrow airport (LHR), I was put through a process that must have been designed by one of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's Vogons [the online instructions somehow manage to hide the insanity of it all]:
- Arrive in the scheduled-for-demolition Terminal 1 [will they rename Terminals 2-5?] and proceed through escalators and long hallways to the far end of the areas marked with purple "Flight Connections" signs.
- From this little corral, you are treated to the luxury of a cramped city bus that whisks you away on a magical adventure to the airport you left, only Terminal 5.
- Upon entering Terminal 5, you are treated to the forced passing through duty free and luxury shops as if you just departed a Disney World ride, only to emerge in a large open space where they charge you a fee to use power outlets and refuse to tell you which gate will host your connecting flight until one hour beforehand.
- Once you finally get comfortable with a cappuccino and US-to-UK adapter plugged into a secret outlet behind a random computer, you find out that your plane is going to depart from a gate that is not really a gate at all, but a bus stop from which you are treated to the awe of another 2-mile bus ride to your Boeing "Dreamliner".
- Board one of British Airways' Dreamliners for a 10-hour flight to Austin, TX, which just happens to be the first and only Europe route into Austin-Bergstrom International airport (AUS).
- Leave the Dreamliner and walk through the Customs section, which is thrown together on the days when this flight is arriving, to explain your current residence to a perplexed agent who cannot understand why any US citizen would ever want to live in another country.
- Stay in Austin for 24 hours. Repeat process in reverse and expect more buses, two separate facial recognition scans and a fingerprint scan in LHR.
- I broke up a trip from Belfast International airport (BFS) to Las Vegas (for Black Hat!) by connecting through lovely Newark Liberty International airport (EWR) in both directions. This process was extremely different, but somehow just as painful:
- Moving west, kill a 4-hour layover by passing through Customs (and an agent that doesn't even read your country of residence) and getting dumped on the street as if TSA had never seen you before.
- Reenter security for a domestic flight. Find dinner and a place to charge your devices (for free!).
- Wait for the standard gate change that accompanies every single Newark flight and the TripIt email to inform you of this change.
- Run to new gate that is nowhere near where you decided to charge your devices.
- Arrive at Las Vegas McCarran International airport (LAS) and adjust to a 8-hour time difference.
- Stay in Las Vegas for two and a half days (more than enough). Repeat process in reverse and add an hour to your Newark layover before actually experiencing a reasonable Customs process (and fingerprint scan) in BFS.
Everyone asks if it feels strange to come back to the United States. Well, everything about this kind of business travel makes you feel strange, so I guess, yes, it does. Maybe after my family trip back to New England, I will be able to distinguish between the strange feelings of re-inpatriation and international business trips.
Conclusion: Business travel will never become as luxurious as it looks on TV.
I have three very brief stories about shopping and in all cases, I just say "it's a swipe card" and wait for their contorted, annoyed face from the cashier.
- To my surprise, UK's "Poundland" has nothing in common with the US's near-bankrupt "Dollar Store" - you can get name brand condiments (Heinz!) and snacks (Tayto!) and everything really does cost one pound sterling.
- Tesco must have heard about Wal-mart's tiers of stores and superstores and taken it as a challenge, so they created, from smallest to largest, "Tesco Express", "Tesco Metro", "Tesco", "Tesco Superstore", "Tesco Extra". My favorite part of "Tesco Extra"? The "Travelator" - it slows you down and makes you lazier, but it also the only time that an American with extensive experience steering a cart with fixed rear wheels can push the damned shopping trolley with four laterally rotating wheels in the direction he intends.
- We have twice made a family trip to Ikea, each time with the toddlers snoring in the rental car upon arrival. The first visit lasted somewhere between 3 hours and 2 days and included a full, unexplained evacuation as my wife was placing items on the belt at the till (I had already dragged the children out with our last collective shred of sanity). Somehow, the second trip was shorter in time, but no more joyful as it is clear that they strategically shield some sections of the building to avoid modern communications like SMS, email, phone calls, or strategically placed breadcrumbs. Don't even think about eating a meal after shopping.
Conclusion: Had it been around then, Ikea would have been the last level of hell in Dante's "Inferno".
In a previous blog, I promised not to waste your time with the "they use funny words over here" discussion. Well, I have a few language differences that I just have to mention:
- Filet Mignon vs. Fillet Steak - in our worldwide attempt to butcher the French language, I now know that English-speaking countries add an 'l' to the word "filet" when they want to change its pronunciation from sounding like "delay" to sounding like "skillet". I have been corrected when I screw it up. Conclusion: Everyone is against the French (language).
- "Stuffed animals" - is there anything confusing about that term? I know there isn't. No one in the Belfast office thought so, either. Somehow, the Customs inspectors in England decided that they should delay the shipment of our personal effects until we clarified this term directly below "children's toys" and above "cribs" on our inventory list. This would have been a cute story had we not already waited three weeks for our property to leave the US port, three weeks for it to cross the Atlantic, and two weeks for Customs to even notice it was at its destination port. We also got to wait another two weeks (one just to schedule a delivery) after my wife's clarifying message of "Do you have another name for plush toys over here?" before receiving our things. This blog is not the proper place for my 1,000-word blasting of our "International Movers" who actually just set up auto-reply emails saying "thank you!" once your items leave the US. Thanks for your help, guys. It looks like we will be slowly moving everything back to the States via United Airlines when my secondment ends. Conclusions: UK Customs inspectors are on the lookout for stealthy taxidermists and international movers only handle the domestic part of moving internationally.
- "Anti-money laundering" - here is a term that I absolutely expected to have the same meaning in both countries. You see: there are international regulations that demand identification vetting for all parties requesting bank accounts to prevent money launderers from freely moving funds between accounts in 10 different countries. Fair enough. Well, in the US, I happen to know that this vetting process has multiple options at each bank, but most happen while you are at the branch or, when online, after a couple of days of background checks. Here in the UK, I found one bank that would not accept a passport, UK visa, and rental agreement as proof that I am not a money-launderer, one bank that would not accept a utility company's confirmation of account as proof that the secondary account holder lives here (it had to be a statement), and finally, a third bank that only needed my US passport and UK visa because, you now, THAT IS ENOUGH TO TRACK ME AROUND THE WORLD. Conclusion: UK AML standards leave a tiny bit open for interpretation.
- "People Carrier" - In the US, when your in-laws visit and you are going to cram 4 adults and 2 car seats into a rental car, you just visit a couple websites and find whatever monstrosity of an SUV comes at the best rate. It costs 10-20% more than a monstrosity of a mid-size car, so you pull the trigger. Well, here in the land of reducing fuel consumption and thin lanes, moving from a car that fits 5 to a minivan or "people carrier" that seats 7 actually triples the cost while exposing foreigners as clearly as a roadblocking sheep spray-painted with the American flag. Conclusion: "People carrier" in UK English equals "Didn't tip the waiter" in US English.
- "Daddy Long Legs" - I know that this is a slang term, but I was recently shocked to find out that it means something completely different in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. I have no idea about Canada, as usual. See if you can connect the three pictures below with the corresponding country that considers each a "Daddy Long Legs" [Hint: my conclusion to this one is that every creature is scarier in Australia]: