I left for Ireland on Sunday and had planned to post throughout the week but it didn’t work out. Fitting evening writing sessions in between dinner, work events, and city exploration turned out to be harder than I imagined, so hard that I didn’t type a single letter on the keyboard. Now that the trip is over it’s time to post a summary.
The trip over wasn’t too bad. It was hard to leave Sally and the boys at the bus station and I felt out-of-place waiting for the bus. It is rare for Sally and I to do anything separately, especially a trip. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a bus without someone else to talk to so the ride to Logan was a new experience for me. I met up with my coworker Mark on the way down and we had dinner in a restaurant in the airport before boarding our flight. The plane was larger than any plane that I’ve ever been on and was reasonably roomy. Each seat had a pillow and a blanket (which I used because it was quite chilly on the flight) as well as a seatback entertainment system. The food was better than I expected – about mid-flight I had chicken and rice with bread, a salad, and a brownie for dessert. Overall the flight wasn’t bad. I tried to sleep but only kept my eyes shut for about an hour. When I wasn’t sleeping I was listening to music or watching Warm Bodies, which I’ve wanted to see for a while. It’s not a bad movie if you look at it lightly.
Once we arrived in the airport we followed a winding hallway for what seemed like an eternity until we reached the exit terminal. I gave Sally a quick call while we waited for our luggage. My phone automatically roamed on a few of the networks over there, usually O2, so I had voice access all week. I used it sparingly but it was nice to have. Mark couldn’t get service at all for some reason – it was something to do with his phone (a Galaxy S3) because it was on AT&T just like mine. Once our luggage arrived we headed over to the passport line. We almost went into the European line but soon realized we were wrong and moved over to the US line. We waited in line until it was our turn and walked up to the window so the clerk could ask us how long we were staying and our reason for entering the country. We said we were there for business and the clerk stamped our passports without further questions.
I found the Dublin airport to be very interesting because every sign was written in two languages – English and Irish. Irish (a Gaelic language) is not the primary language spoken in Ireland but is still taught in schools and considered and official language in addition to English. After leaving the terminal we took a pretty long walk outside over to the bus station. There were a huge number of busses at the airport going to all sorts of places in Ireland. We pulled 20 Euros out of the ATM and waited at the bus station.
Before I continue, I’m going to stop and explain something about Ireland that I did not know. Our Liberty office is in Belfast in Northern Ireland. The Airport is in Dublin, about two hours away. The currency used in Dublin is the Euro but the currency used in Belfast is the British Pound Sterling. This is because Ireland and Northern Ireland are actually two separate countries. Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. and is treated as its own semi-soverign state while Ireland is its own country that has nothing to do with the Queen or anybody else. Northern Ireland occupies only about 1/8th of the land mass of the continent while Ireland occupies the rest. The Northern Irish refer to Ireland as “the south”. I’m assuming the Irish refer to the Northern Irish as “the north”. It reminds me a lot of Game of Thrones, though that is a simplified and possibly offensive comparison. Apparently Northern Ireland’s inclusion in the U.K. does not sit well with some of its residents and causes controversy. One of my team mate’s there (also a Mark) explained to us that you will get varying answers if you ask someone in Northern Ireland if they are Irish. Some will say they are English (U.K.) while others will say they are Irish while others still will say that they are Northern Irish. It can be a touchy subject up there.
The bus we took to Belfast was a double-decker, the first one I had ever been on. I sat on the bottom level of course. During the ride we saw lots of hills, lots of green, and lots of farms. There are a lot of farms between Dublin and Belfast. The countryside was pretty much what I thought it would be: green. The farm houses were old – you could see the stucco, the brick, and the uneven roofs. Often times you’d see a house in the middle of a great big grass-covered hill bordered by fences to keep the cattle in. There were lots of cows, horses, and sheep as well. I haven’t really seen too many sheep in the US so that was pretty interesting.
By the time we reached Belfast it was about 8:30 AM or about 3:30 AM to our bodies. We checked into the Fitzwilliam Hotel and turned into our rooms for a couple of hours of napping. My plan was to take a nap but I was too excited and wired to sleep. By the time I got settled in it was about 9:30 and I’d only get to sleep until about 11 since we had meetings in the afternoon. Instead of sleeping I went down to the hotel restaurant and had a cappuccino and breakfast. The restaurant at the hotel is very modern with thick rectangular blonde wood tables, curvy high-backed red chairs, and chic hanging lights. The cappuccino came in a big cup with lots and lots of foam on top. It wasn’t sweetened but came out nicely after I added sugar to it.
They offered a “continental breakfast” of fruits, cereal, breads, and pastries for about £10. For £16.50 (about $26) you could get a hot breakfast. I decided to have the Ireland experience and get the Irish breakfast which consisted of a fried egg, “potato bread” (more like a hash brown than bread), Irish bacon (like Canadian bacon) a grilled mushroom, a grilled tomato, and white and black pudding. Everything was normal (the potato bread and tomato were delicious) other than the black and white pudding. They didn’t really look like pudding and were more like a formed scoop of grains mixed with something to keep them together and then grilled or fried. I took a couple bites of each and neither were very offensive. It was at that point that I decided to look up what they actually were. Black pudding is another name for Blood Sausage which is basically oats cooked in pork blood until it thickens enough to congeal. White pudding is similar except it doesn’t have blood in it and apparently used to contain sheep’s brains (prior to 1990). Mmmm. I wanted the Irish experience and I got it.
After breakfast I went back to my room to change and settle in. Mark and I headed over to the office at around noon. Our hotel was right in the center of the city and the office was about 5 blocks away – a 10 − 15 minute walk. The office is very nice with brightly colored walls, frosted glass panels, and modern looking desks. They don’t have cubicles like we do so there is a very open feeling to everything. We’d spend most of the rest of the week in meetings but it is a nice office nevertheless.
While we did accomplish a lot meeting-wise during our visit, one of the more important things we did was build relationships with our Irish counterparts. It was really great to put names to faces and faces to places and start building much more personal relationships than we had before. The next time I’m in a meeting with any of these people I’m going to have a better understanding of them because I’ll be able to remember what they look like, where they sit, and what they are doing. The social aspect of the trip alone was huge.
Monday Night Out
Speaking of the social aspect, we finished off our first day in the U.K. with a night of pub-hopping and eating, probably not the best choice for someone who was near the end of a personal 24 hour stay-awake-a-thon. We started at The Crown which is a really beautiful bar with stained glass and ornate carvings. It is actually a historic landmark and its wood was carved by the same artisans who carved the ornate wood used on the Titanic. I had my first (and probably last) pint of Guinness there. Beer is definitely not my thing but I had to try it, you know “When in Ireland…” I’ll definitely say that the pouring of Guinness is quite an art over there. It probably takes five entire minutes to pour it because they pour it in stages in order for it to settle correctly. Though I couldn’t finish the entire glass (too bitter) it was quite filling.
We moved over to Robinson’s next which is actually composed of a couple of bars and a club. Dinner came after that at a restaurant that reminded me a lot of the Friendly Toast minus the drug-addicted wait staff. Already having a cappuccino and half a Guinness in my stomach I attempted to shove some Fish & Chips and a White Russian in there too. It was good, really super crispy, and I ate about half of it but that was all I could stomach.
Our final destination was a pub in an alley. I didn’t get anything to drink because I felt like I was going to burst but stayed around to enjoy the conversation. It is common in Northern Ireland to see people drinking a few feet outside the bar doors into the street. Public drinking is technically not allowed but the police don’t really care. Because this pub was in an alley people spilled out into it and basically drank outside. It was really cool. Towards the end of the night my lack of sleep started to hit me and I didn’t really participate in the last hour of conversation. It was about midnight by the time we finally started to head back to the hotel.
On the way back we walked through quiet empty streets. The city seemed virtually empty. There was almost nobody outside, no noise. It could have easily been the set for a zombie apocalypse movie. Creepy but kind of cool. The city was empty for a few reasons. One was that it was early in the week; the night life was much more active near the weekend. Second, it was summer and college was out (Belfast has two which increase its night-time population a bit). The third reason was that July – August is when many in Northern Ireland take vacation and are out of the country. Plane tickets to England, France, and Spain are inexpensive so people tend to visit often during vacation.
Tuesday rolled around and I felt OK after getting some sleep. It wasn’t as much as it should have been but I was able to function after a cappuccino. After a productive day at work Mark and I decided to go our separate ways for the night. I went back to my hotel room and changed before hitting the town with my camera. I walked up Great Victoria street taking photos of buildings, road signs, and other things that interested me until I hit Queen’s University and turned around. I was out for about 2 hours enjoying the day light (the sun doesn’t go down until after 9 PM this time of year). I felt a bit nervous because my camera made me look like a tourist but nothing really happened. I saw a few homeless people and took a picture of some college kids who yelled at me from their car but that was really it.
I enjoyed dinner in the hotel restaurant by myself. It was weird. I’m not used to dining alone. I must have looked like a complete introvert because I spent the entire time playing with my phone checking Facebook. It was about 2:30 in the US so there was a bit of lunch activity happening. I had all intentions of going to the gym but my photo exploration trip pushed dinner to after 7:30 and I wasn’t back in my room until well after 8. By that time it was too late to exercise though I still had to wait until 11 to call Sally. After our call I went right to bed.
Wednesday was filled with meetings followed by a team outing / celebration of sorts in the office. We ordered pizza into the office and met up at a pub afterward. The pizza was Domino’s ironically. I asked if they always give the Americans “home cooked” food when they visit. Everyone laughed, but in fact they really do enjoy Dominoes and Pizza Hut quite a bit over there. They also have some KFC, Subway, and McDonald’s restaurants scattered about.
We met at a pub called Filthy McNasty’s and had a couple of drinks before heading over to a pool hall to play pool. If you know me you know that I am not any good at sports. Pool counts as sports and I’m just as terrible. Part of it is practice – I’ve really only played three or four times in my life so there is no way that I can get the hang of it. Regardless I played a few rounds and made fun of myself while drinking a gin and tonic. I ended up hitting one ball into the pocket which was quite an improvement over the last time I played when I couldn’t even hit a ball. If I just play a thousand more games or so I might just be reasonable at it. A couple of the guys were really, really good, getting four or five balls in a row. Maybe I’ll be that good in 50 years or so.
After a couple of hours of pool we bounced around to a few other pubs. One of the interns tagged along and it was obvious that he was on a mission to become completely inebriated. Every time he ordered a beer he ordered a whisky or some other hard liquor drink to go with it. At one of the bars he ordered a pitcher of Sex on the Beach for himself and two sets of shots for the rest of us. By the time we made it to the last bar he was wandering around spurting out random phrases and dancing. He ended up almost missing work completely the next day and didn’t even remember the last few hours of the night. He looked completely miserable when he crawled into work at 2 PM.
We were working closely with a guy named Mark (not the Mark I came over with) and he acted as our host for the week. He brought us around to the bars and filled us in on the history of Northern Ireland and Irish culture. We learned about the “troubles”, a 40 year civil war in Northern Ireland between the Unionists / Loyalists (mostly Protestant) and the Nationalists / Republicans (mostly Catholic). The Unionists wanted Ireland to remain as part of the U.K. while the Nationalists wanted it to join the rest of Ireland. The combination of religion, politics, and nationalism resulted in an extremely violent civil war. Police officers were murdered and bombed weekly, so much that Northern Irish police cars are so heavily armored that they can resist an RPG blast. The military was stationed in Belfast and setup entry and exit checkpoints. The hotel next to us (the Europa) is known as the worlds most bombed hotel, being bombed 28 times during the Troubles. The Troubles “ended” in 1998 after an agreement was made between the two sides. It is simply fascinating that such a violent war only ended 15 years ago.
As midnight approached we got ready to head back and met up with Mark’s wife who was coming to pick him up for the night. We were on the way so she taxied us to the hotel in her very tiny Ford Ka. The price of gas is astronomically high in comparison to gas in the US so cars are much, much smaller and people drive less frequently. It costs something like £65 to fill up a Ford Focus which is about $104. That works out to something like $8 a gallon, half of which is tax. The majority of vehicles, like the Ka, are extremely small and run on diesel engines to squeeze the most efficiency out of them. Midsize cars and SUVs are almost unseen.
Preparing for Home
As the week wound to a close we decided that it would be best to stay in the last day so that we could get some sleep. We went out to Carrol’s Irish Gifts which is a big souvenir store that sells stereotypical stuff like leprechaun costumes and t-shirts. I spent about £85 on gifts and the cashier was trying to get me to spend £15 more so that I could get a free CD of Irish music. No thanks. I was pretty happy with what I got even though we had to walk through the rain to get it.
After a successful trip to Carrol’s I spent the evening eating my final Belfast dinner and packing up. I dined alone once again and had tomato soup followed by an aged rib eye steak followed by a traditional Sticky Toffee Pudding (kind of like a brownie sundae with caramel sauce). I went to bed at around 11 and planned to get up at 4 AM to be ready for the 6 AM bus. It didn’t work out so well because I was so worried that I wouldn’t wake up to my alarm and I got up at 3 AM instead. It worked out though because there was an auction for a Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh on eBay that ended at 4:15 and I won it! Had I not been up so early I wouldn’t have had time to bid on it.
We hopped on the 6 AM bus to Dublin, which for some reason was cheaper than the one to Belfast (£13.50 vs €17 – about £1 less after conversion). We got our tickets and the security check wasn’t too bad. The security people in Dublin are much nicer than the TSA agents that we have in the U.S. Once we were past security we hung out at a restaurant and had coffee and breakfast before we headed over to our gate. I stopped at a duty-free shop to pick up some Irish candy that I had promised my coworkers.
The flight home was an hour longer than the flight over (7 vs 6 hours) because we were flying against the jet stream. It was pretty crowded. I basically sat in the same seat that I had on the way over except there was a wall behind me. I didn’t realize that it would prevent me from reclining completely which meant that I couldn’t get my head comfortable and barely slept. My eyes were burning so much that I spent a lot of time with them shut even though I was awake. The plane ride back was very similar to the plane ride over – I watched in-flight entertainment (this time three episodes of Game of Thrones), had lunch (chicken and rice again, this time a bit spicy), had coffee a couple of times, listened to music, and tried to sleep unsuccessfully. It felt a lot more miserable than on the way over, probably due to lack of sleep and an eagerness to get home.
We arrived in Boston on time and headed down to Customs. I waited in a short line, handed over my pre-filled clearance form, and waited for the clerk to ask me questions. He asked me what kind of food I brought, I said “chocolates”, and that was it, I was done. After Mark cleared we rushed down to the baggage claim hoping to grab our bags and be at the bus stop for the 2:10 C&J. It took about 20 minutes for the bags to show up and we rushed out the door only to wait another 30 minutes for the bus to show up. By the time everything was settled it was almost 3 PM. Add Boston traffic and I didn’t get home until 4:30.
Sally was texting me all the way telling me that she was leaving work and about to get the boys as I was leaving Pease. I thought I’d probably get home about 10 minutes before she did but to my surprise I saw her, GiGi, and my two little ones sitting on a bench waiting with balloons at the bus station. She tricked me and I was so happy! I rushed out of the bus so fast to hug them that I left my camera and candy on board and would have left without it had Sally not reminded me. After we got home I gave the boys their souvenirs – an Ireland shirt for each, a bus for Adam, and a tractor for Zachary. I got Lynn some newspapers with the Royal Baby on them and Sally a shirt about great craic (pronounced “crack” which means “fun” or a “fun time”). We ordered take out, ate dinner, put the boys to bed, and then put me to bed. I was so tired that I fell asleep almost instantly at 9:30.
So there you have it, my trip to Ireland, my first trip to Europe, my first time out of the country, and my first time away from the boys. It was a cool place to go and definitely beneficial for work. I’ve always wanted to go to Europe and I’d still love to take Sally at some point in our lives. It was a busy week and I didn’t have a lot of time for sightseeing but that was OK. I wouldn’t have wanted to be there without my family for much longer anyway. It was a great trip, especially when work pays for it. Now we just need to find out where Sally can go for a week…