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.
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
Just 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
The 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.