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.
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.
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...