Interesting times … on both sides of the pond

Just two weeks ago, we were looking forward to getting away from the tit-for-tat government spats that were occurring during the presidential transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Inauguration? What inauguration?

And then Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned a week ago, which has triggered a new Northern Ireland election for March 2. Oh boy, just in time for my birthday.

It’s hard enough to describe the political situation in Northern Ireland during tranquil times. But the past two months on the island have seen a sharpening of the divide between the Democrat Unionist Party (DUP) and nationalist party Sinn Fein. The two parties had been running a coalition government in Northern Island under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which ended decades of direct rule from London and is generally considered to mark the end of the Troubles. The resignation of one of the main ministers can trigger a snap election after one week in the absence of a replacement being named, which is what happened earlier today.

Try to keep up

Ostensibly at the heart of the debate is the renewable heat incentive (RHI), a scheme that Arlene Foster set up as energy minister before being named first minister last year before the May 2016 election. The terms of the scheme seem to have been quite generous, especially in light of drastically falling fuel prices. That’s not to say that all who received RHI funds—mainly farmers who also invested heavily in new technology—were doing anything wrong. But the terms were extremely favorable to those who participated in RHI, with a total potential outlay to taxpayers of nearly £500 million.

When details came to light, Sinn Fein asked Foster to step aside while an investigation took place. She refused, setting the stage for last week’s showdown. Fueling the flames, so the speak, during the so-called “ash for cash” scandal was the DUP communities minister’s decision to cut £50,000 out of a program to help Irish language students visit the Gaeltacht region of Donegal, where Irish still is spoken. This happened on the Friday before Christmas. Nollaig Shona, indeed!

The week between McGuinness’s resignation and the calling of early elections saw a flurry of he-said, she-said between the parties. The money for Irish language instruction, a key point for Sinn Feiners, was returned. Foster refused to step aside, and Sinn Fein declined to name a new first deputy unless she did.

But wait, there’s more!

A snap election suspends the power-sharing agreement for the first time in more than a decade, and Stormont, where the Northern Ireland Assembly meets, will cease operating in the next couple of weeks. Will it mean the reimposition of direct rule or could it tip political power in another direction?

A change in the constitution aimed at gradually reducing the size of the legislative body also means that there will be 18 fewer representatives, which could hurt fringe parties but could also rebalance power among the main political parties. In a world where virtually no one predicted Brexit or in the UK or Trump’s election in the US, we’ve all learned that anything is possible.

Finally, the new election puts in doubt Northern Ireland’s solution to the bedroom tax, which taxes people for having unused bedrooms in an effort to get them to downsize. Large carveouts were made for pensioners, but there just aren’t enough smaller homes to go around—despite the threat of taxation. The collapse of power-sharing also leaves this issue up in the air.

In announcing the mandated election, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire expressed hope that the parties could “… find a way forward to secure the continuation of devolved government.”

Can you image power-sharing between Republicans and Democrats? When considering how this issue will affect Northern Ireland over the next six weeks, remember how far both sides have come over the past 15 years.

Panto is a raucous good time

A pantomime—or panto, as it’s commonly known in the UK—must be experienced rather than described. It’s equal parts beauty and bawdry, seasoned with large dollops of music, topical humor, sight gags and fart jokes. It’s the closest thing to a vaudeville performance you’ll find these days. The narrator is usually a man in drag, contrasting greatly with the fair stars of the production.

Going to a panto is a holiday tradition in the UK, much like we’d go to see a production of “A Christmas Carol.” On our trips to Europe during American Thanksgiving, we had noticed adverts for pantos on buses and in train stations in the cities we were visiting. One year, the star was John Barrowman, who many sci-fi and fantasy fans know from his portrayal of Capt. Jack Harkness in “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood.” Although some of the actors can be from the B list, the narrator usually is the real star.

On our first bus trip to the city centre, I saw an advertisement for “Cinderella” at the Grand Opera House, a venue that truly lives up to its name. The production extended well past Christmas, so I figured there wouldn’t be a more appropriate time to experience this UK tradition.

Trying to get tickets, however, was a challenge—even three weeks after Christmas. This was closing week, and many of the performances were sold out. The performance we attended, a Friday afternoon matinee, was full except for the neck-turning, slightly obscured tickets we managed to purchase.

For the Grand Opera House production of “Cinderella,” take a well-known story, mix in a handsome prince and a fresh-faced lead actress. Throw in a cross-dressing fairy godmother with half-moon disco balls on her dress where her breasts would be and Princess Leia bun hair with another disco ball on top. Top that with generous amounts of slapstick, familiar tunes with new words and loads of audience participation (the louder the better), and you get some idea of a panto.

The fairy godmother, May McFettridge, embodies the spirit of the panto at the Grand Opera House. She’s been starring in pantos here for more than a quarter century, honored in 2014 with a bust permanently installed in the theatre opposite that of opera house architect Frank Matcham.

The jokes flew fast and thick, poking fun at everything from the current political climate to Donald Trump. Talking about her origins early on, the fairy godmother says she “wakes up every morning where everyone hugs and kisses—Stormont,” a reference to the current political climate where the power-sharing agreement is in jeopardy.

Several jokes were aimed at Gareth Gates, who played Prince Charming. He was a runner up to Will Young in the UK’s “Pop Idol,” then lost out to him again for best-selling song of the year.

In all the raucous action, you could have missed the Grand Opera House Dancers and future stars who gyrated, pranced and tried to keep pace. But you couldn’t have missed the 10 school groups who packed the 1,100-seat venue. Not only did the fairy godmother call out each group, he also brought four pre-teens up on stage for some alliterative fun, repeating variations of “One smart fellow, he felt smart.” Say this out loud to yourself a couple of times, and you’ll get where the gag is going.

The first girl, a knock-kneed 8-year-old with long straight hair that kept getting into her eyes, failed miserably, substituting “fart” for “smart” each time, much to the crowd’s delight. Another boy started to say the “f” word, before stopping himself and repeating the phrase correctly.

If you’re looking for high theater, a panto will never be your thing. But if you want to experience a beloved holiday tradition like the natives do, a panto definitely is worth a look.

Getting my workout on at the PEC

Over the past year, I worked myself into fairly good shape, dropping more than a few pounds and turning my spare tire into a run-flat spare. Marilynn says I look mighty fine, which makes the effort worth every drop of sweat, every lap in the pool and every crunch performed under the watchful eyes of the very fit and very perky Body Pump instructor.

The past few months, however, have been fairly rough on my exercise routine, a combination of my bad back flaring up and the sheer amount of gargantuan, huge, medium, small and tiny tasks that had to be completed before making this trip.

But I was determined to maintain a workout regime, so Marilynn had already checked out the Queen’s Physical Education Center, known as Queen’s Sport. I also love that it’s full name can be shortened to PEC. Get it? Like the Ted, the former home of the Atlanta Braves.

“I’m going to the PEC to get my workout on!”

Since I paid nearly $200 US for the privilege of working out at the PEC, those workouts began immediately. Because Queen’s gives exams at the PEC, the swimming pool has really odd hours this week. It’s open 6:30-9 a.m., then again from 12:30-2. I’m not a morning person, so the first session was out.

So, on Tuesday,  I gathered all of the necessary stuff for a slightly-past-midday trip to the pool and set off. Most of what happened hereafter was my fault, the result of “just one of those days.”

When I got to the gym, I couldn’t remember where the pool was. The PEC is a multi-level, multi-building facility that I’d toured at a breakneck pace with someone who obviously knew where he was going. So I asked a guy in the locker room, who pointed me in the right direction (and toward the locker room closer to the pool).

When I got there, I realized I hadn’t brought my pool shoes. Now I could have gone swimming and taken a shower without shoes, but I’m not a fan of foot fungus. No shoes = no swimming. “That’s OK, I can lift weights and do an elliptical machine,” I think to myself. So I returned to the first locker room, where I avoided the gaze of the guy who’d just given me directions.

Halfway down the long corridor to the elliptical machines, I realized I didn’t have my Fitbit. No sense working out if you don’t get credit for the steps, so I trek back to the locker room. I get the locker open OK but can’t figure out how to close it and retrieve the key.

The locker system works like getting a shopping cart at Aldi: insert quarter, retrieve cart, get quarter back when you return cart. Except you’re exchanging a one pound coin for the key. After much wrangling, I manage to find the returned coin, reinsert it and get the key. Half way back down the same corridor, I realize I don’t have my headphones. At least this time I knew how the locker worked.

And don’t even ask me about the shower. Suffice it to say that I would be seeing a little more humanity in the open shower facility than suits my tastes (not to mention my modesty). So I’ll be showering at home.

The actual working out part is pretty much the same as at home. No swinging sheep instead of kettle balls, for example. But the change of venue is throwing my whole game off, as evidenced by my first gym foray.

Nothing uniform about this school

Even before we left Decatur, we knew one of the most interesting experiences for Declan would be his new school. Regardless of where he went, we knew there would be a uniform involved that had nothing to do with the football jerseys he wears every day. Marilynn really wanted to get him into Lagan College, Northern Ireland’s first integrated school.

I could digress into a long history of Ireland and religion, but that’s the topic for another post. It’s enough to say that integrated in Ireland means both Catholic and Protestant, not the (literal) black and white issues we Southerners have been dealing with since Reconstruction.

The school’s motto is “Ut Sint Unum,” Latin for “that all may be one.” It was founded in 1981 as a beacon of hope against the stark backdrop of the Troubles. The school is one of the most oversubscribed in the North, despite its location a fair way from the city centre.

So we were very fortunate that a place opened up for Declan at Lagan, which has 1,100 students over seven grades. The grade system is very different from ours, and I still can’t get my  head around it. But instead of seventh grade, Declan is now in Year 9.

He’s having a blast so far, from wearing the sporty blazer and tie to figuring out (and occasionally screwing up) the bus schedule. OK, that last one was mostly the fault of the local transportation service, although we are to blame for a few of the subsequent ones.

For schools that draw students from a relatively small area, you may see one of those 15-passenger vans with a school name on it traveling the Malone Road. But many students, like Declan, ride on regular buses that have School Bus #whatever in the destination header, much like a MARTA bus will say “Clairmont Road.” They pick up at regular bus stops, not specific spots for schoolchildren. Declan rides School Bus 1, a double-decker that goes specifically to Lagan—but just once a day. Miss it, and it’s a 10 pound taxi ride for you.

During the school tour on Thursday, the welfare officer spent 45-plus minutes with us, including having a lengthy conversation with someone from the transit authority to figure out the closest stop to us, which turned out to be a fair walk and smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood.

Declan and I arrived early on Friday to the designated destination, only to be told by the crossing guard for two other schools that he’d never seen an Ulster bus down the street in his four years as a guard. We waited well past the appointed time before I called the cab company, put Declan in the back and gave him a tenner for the driver. He made it home OK that day, and we determined to find a better (and cheaper) bus stop on Monday.

This specific stop was much closer to the flat, but the woman from the transportation authority had no idea whether the bus would actually stop. I could see three crazy Americans standing in the bus lane on the Malone Road trying to stop a double-decker bus through frantic waving and positive attitudes. Yeah, right.

But another Year 9 and her mom were already at the stop when we arrived. They assured us (actually the mom assured us because the girl was an uncommunicative as Declan, who thought we were embarrassing him) that the bus does stop here, which did happen.

Yesterday afternoon, Marilynn and I were rushing home from a near-daily grocery shopping trip to Tesco when I got a text from Declan saying he’d gotten on the wrong bus and was headed to city centre. There are two buses that leave from the same stand at Lagan, and he’s supposed to get on the second one. Oops. You can’t travel a block by bus without a connection to city centre, so Declan knew exactly what to do to get back home.

The extra pound for the trip from city centre (did I mention that students pay for the bus?) was much better than the 8 pound 50 I spent on Friday, so we’re making progress.

And Declan did text this morning that the bus arrived on time.

Singin’ the Blues at local football match

Declan loves football like Winnie the Pooh loves honey. Now when I talk about football, whether in the U.S., the U.K. or in my favorite made-up former Russian republic of Bumfukistan, I’m talking about world football—the kickie kind, the kind the entire planet plays except the US. No helmets required—unless you are Petr Cech.

Folks in the U.S. play a game called American football. I’m not going to say this again, so you need to keep up—football = headers and fancy footwork and not touchdowns. And I guarantee you that we will be talking about football a lot over the next seven months.

Perhaps the only thing that got Declan through a week of Boy Scout camp right before we left (other than not having to pack!) was the fact we were going to see a local professional team play the first full day we were in Belfast. Marilynn had left by then, and the Northern Ireland national football stadium, Windsor Park, not only shares a name with the street we’re living on, it’s also only a 10-minute walk away.

Windsor Park is home to the Linfield Blues of the Northern Irish Premier League, which were four points adrift of the league’s top team, Crusaders FC, a team they had defeated just days earlier. At full capacity, Windsor Park seats 14,000, compared to, say, Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal of the English Premier League, which seats slightly more than 60,000. Home average attendance for the Blues is 2,500, so getting tickets for a Tuesday night match was definitely not a problem.

The night’s opponent was Coleraine, a team in the top half of the table but one that Linfield was supposed to defeat handily. Expectations were understandably high.

The assistant referee on the home side (see picture) apparently had made a bad call against the home team during an earlier match, because the taunting began almost immediately. But when the Linfield captain got a second yellow card in the 34th minute, the howls became much louder and aimed this time at the head referee, who called the apparent infraction that earned the yellow card.

While I was more interested in the match than in the participants, I did feel the Linfield supporters had a legitimate gripe at the sending off because I can’t see how any referee was in a proper position to call a foul, much less a yellow card offense.

Even though the home team, down to 10 men, played admirably for 30 plus minutes, Coleraine scored the only (and winning) goal in the 75th minute. One can sense when a goal is forthcoming, and this one was well due. From the shouts of impassioned fans (mostly men, of course) you’d have thought the Linfield team name was the “Fook Sakes” or the “For Fook Sakes” instead of the Blues. Linfield scored an equalizing goal a few minutes later, only to have a player called offsides and the goal disallowed.

The Crusaders won their match on Tuesday to extend their lead over Linfield to seven points, with a lot more football still to play this season.

I’m sure we’ll attend more Linfield matches this year, as well as those of several other teams. It’s a great way to watch the locals and learn a few new curse words and the proper way to pronounce them.

First day … not a bad view

It was a long, hard slog, but we finally made it. Preparing for a trip of this magnitude requires a substantial amount of effort — that always seems to come up short.

No matter how hard one prepares, there are always things you forget … or wish you hadn’t brought along. Who knew we’d need a number of door stops because all of the doors in university housing swing shut? Who knew there’d be no clothes hangers in the closets, and who wants to really buy those considering we left literally hundreds at home?

I know it’s bad to complain about the queue line at immigration or at bag drop at Heathrow, when in third world countries dozens of people ride atop buses once the seats inside are full and some 30,000 Indians die in transportation-related crashes each year.

But after many starts and stops over 17 hours, we finally arrived at our new flat about 4 p.m. local time yesterday. The short flight between London and Belfast was uneventful. I’d forgotten (or didn’t know in the first place) at how desolate parts of England are as the BA jet flies.

At the very end, however, endless miles of sea quickly gave way to a patchwork of verdant fields bordered by rock fences, very quickly changing to low warehouses that mark the landing area at almost any airport. Right before landing, I caught a glimpse of  Samson and Goliath, the Harland & Wolff gantries that have only been in place for roughly 50 years but recall the city’s shipbuilding history — most famously that of Titanic.

If you’ve never been to Ireland, it’s difficult to describe how green the fields actually are. It’s  a rich yellow-green that American fields just can’t emulate. It’s a sight one never gets fully accustomed to nor ever takes for granted.

The day was beginning to darken as Marilynn finally arrived with the keys (Declan and I came over in the taxi while she stopped by university housing), but we had to lay in supplies at the local Tesco, a 10-minute walk. Prices were surprisingly good, compared to the US, but selection apparently wanes as the day moves on. Note to self: shop earlier in the day!

But we did manage to lay in enough supplies to make dinner (pasta with mushroom cream sauce), breakfast (corn flakes for the boy, fruit & nut museli for the adults), and plenty of tea. Marilynn and Declan returned there for things we didn’t know we’d need (a sponge, paper towels and the like), so it was a full first day, indeed.


The picture is the view from our living room window, which will be my office for the next seven months. Our backyard neighbors in Decatur have been known to go shirtless if the weather is nice, so I don’t believe that will happen too often in Belfast — especially in winter.

10 days before liftoff

Setting up a blog site may not be the best use of one’s time, 10 days before embarking on a seven-month journey to Belfast and beyond. But here it is nonetheless.

My wife is a Fulbright Scholar at Queen’s University Belfast for the spring semester, where she will teach two classes and do research for her next book on literary responses to the peace process in Northern Ireland. Oh yeah, and she’s got another book that she edited coming out this spring with an Irish publisher. It will be much easier to go on a book tour when you’re on the east side of the pond.

Although we are not Irish, we named our son Declan to honor my wife’s research interests and our favorite place to travel. Little did we know he’d have auburn hair like many Irish kids to go along with his Irish name. Although we still don’t have a school nailed down for him yet, we know he’ll fit right in. It was in Derry during summer 2013 when he pledged allegiance to the EPL team Arsenal  and asked for his first jersey. Four Arsenal jerseys and those from nearly a dozen other teams later, he’s still into football (the world kind).

And I’m merely a humble writer, with a newspaper background and my own marketing communications company that specializes in technology and healthcare writing. It means that I’m infinitely portable in terms of work, which helps make this odyssey possible.

The photo is of Giant’s Causeway, taken in 2013. It’s a World Heritage Site and did not disappoint. Most people opt for the package bus tour, which includes a tour of the Bushmill’s Distillery. We hired a car for the day from Belfast, so no distillery for us.