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.
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.
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
Surprised 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.
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?
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.