To let or not to let …

OK, this is the ubiquitous words-have-different-meanings-in-different-countries post that every tourist with a blog probably has written. Run if you must … I won’t blame you, but I promise to only look at the interesting words.

If you’re still here, look at the picture. Did you think “toilet”? I’ve been in Europe a half-dozen times in the past decade or so, and this one throws me every time. It looks like the “i” went missing. And it’s doubly confusing, because the “bathroom” or “restroom” is called the “toilet” over here.

I thought it was just me, but my Rhodes Scholar wife says it throws here, too, which means either (a. My mind isn’t as far in the gutter as I feared; or (b. I’ve dragged my wife down to my level. That one’s likely a tossup.

We actually read by quickly deciphering the shape of words rather than the individual letters. Here’s a Scientific American article that explains what I’m talking about, and why it’s perfectly natural to interpret “to let” as “toilet.” Aside from the fact it’s really, really funny, that is.

The way our brains interpret words is also the reason it’s harder to read CAPITAL LETTER WORDS and, perhaps, the reason why capital letters piss so many of us off.

For me, I’ll take a for rent sign over a to let sign every single day.

What’s in a name?

From my experience, I will say that Brits and the Irish do better than we Americans at describing things. It makes sense … they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years longer.

I’m not going to write about the obvious word differences (chips for fries, crisps for potato chips), but I will never understand why cookies and crackers are both called biscuits. I was looking for crackers in the local Tesco the other day, and Declan had to direct me. “Crackers are biscuits for cheese,” Marilynn says. In other words, no support from the missus on this issue.

But, as I’ve said, they’ve got a lot of the terminology spot on. Where do you park in front of Wal-Mart (OK, here, Marks & Spencer)? Why, the car park, of course. And that big road you drive on to get from city to city? The motorway.

Lift does describe what an elevator does better than, say, elevator.

I will have to quibble over clothing terms, however. For his uniform, Declan needed specific type/color of trousers, blazer and jumper, according to the handbook. We’d say pants, jacket and sweater. Although please don’t say “pants” here when you mean long trousers. Pants here mean underwear.

A few years ago while visiting friends near Oxford, I mentioned that I had forgotten my comfy pants at home and wanted to buy some when we went shopping. I was referring to the nighttime/morning pants I sometimes wear with the elastic waistband and drawstrings. They thought I meant something very different.

It was so embarrassing, I sought refuge in the bathroom. Or was it the to let?

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.