One Foot in Two Worlds

Three short weeks ago, an exhausted Bolch/Richtarik family returned to the US.

The intervening days have been a whirlwind of unpacking, washing, shopping, errand-running and overwhelming tiredness. Think jetlag on steroids, and you still haven’t approached the fundamental weariness that has hit the household’s adult population. Declan, naturally, is unaffected.

Don’t get me wrong: we are genuinely happy to be back. We missed (among many other things) our cat Gunner, our king-sized bed, ceiling fans, big-ass washers and dryers, driving to the store, our community, milkshakes and American plumbing. Say what you want about our country, we do plumbing right. And, of course, I’ve been smoking or grilling nearly every day on the Big Green Egg.

My sister asked me whether the Irish ate pork. “Whatever gave you the idea that they didn’t?” I asked. “Because you’ve been smoking so much pork,” she replied. “Well what else are you supposed to do on a Big Green Egg?” I said.

Too much to do

Part of the reason for our tiredness, I think, has to do with the incredible amount of household work that awaited us. Take the mail, for example. Despite stopping all of the magazines and everything else we possibly could, we had an overflowing milk crate’s worth of mail waiting for us. It took me an entire day just to deal with that, separating the snail mail wheat (very little) from the chaff (very much). Seeing seven months’ worth of mail at one go does provide insight into how often charities we never support constantly send us stuff we don’t want.

The contents of two bedrooms and my office were packed away so our tenants could feel at home with their own stuff. All of those things have to find their way back where they belong—a process that’s still not complete.

Marilynn shops what’s on sale, creating a weekly menu based on store specials while stocking up on pantry items. We ate through as much of that as we could, leaving the rest for our tenants. But that meant the cupboards were bare when we got back. It seems like we’ve been to one store or another every day since we got back.

I was responsible for turning everything back on that had been turned off, resubscribing to what had been canceled and getting our cell phones working again, which required at least four trips to the AT&T store, three to Best Buy and a drive to the Atlanta ‘burbs for a new flip phone for Declan.

Add the start of Declan’s school year (and the requisite supply list shopping), my business and Marilynn’s work, and it all adds up to too much to do.

Another life left behind

Another reason for our malaise, I’m sure, is that we still are pining for our life in Belfast and our friends there. Toward the end, I absolutely felt like a native, albeit a native with a decidedly Southern American accent. I took great pride in striding unmolested past the Belfast tourist office, where reps for various bus/rail/drunkie cab tours hang out and hand leaflets to passing strangerss. People who know where they are going don’t get pamphlets.

We have a ton of friends there and had more adventures in seven months than many families have in a lifetime.

Simply put, living outside your country and somewhat out of your comfort zone puts a new perspective on every aspect of your life. I can’t escape thinking about the post-World War I song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)”

And I believe the answer is: You can’t.

Every Day is V-Day in Italy

Italians love to snog in public. Not a chaste peck on the cheek while hand-holding. Oh, no …  we’re talking about full on, tongue on tongue action, lemme see if I can taste what you had for dinner last night snogging. Sit on my lap and look like you’re trying to eat my face snogging.

I’m reminded of lyrics from “The Bad Touch” by the Bloodhound Gang: “Love, the kind you clean up with a mop and bucket.” This is juicy love I’m talking about here, the kind you know Barry White was having before he went to the mirrored-ceiling love nest in the sky.

And these couples are everywhere. I noticed on our first day in Rome. Nothing like looking at the ancient ruins of the Coliseum to stir one’s desires, I guess. The Coliseum certainly was impressive, but not pop a stiffee impressive, if you get my drift. But that didn’t stop the several couples I saw going at it in public.

It’s like seeing a kid with snot dripping out of his nose. You don’t want to look, but you want to know the outcome. Will the snot bubble burst? Will he grab her ass with both hands?

Same snog, different verse

And once you notice what’s going on, you’re more attuned to seeing it again and again. So I started talking fake sexy to Marilynn when we saw a couple going at it. “Oh baby, I love you so much I want to stick my tongue down your throat right here in front of God and everybody to show it,” I’d say in my best Barry White impression. “Ewww,” she’d reply.

During the Rome visit, Declan started noticing SPQR everywhere—old monuments, relatively new buildings and manhole covers everywhere. The initials stand for Senatus Populus Que Romanusa—the Senate and the People of Rome—and are still in use today by the Rome government. When he pointed out the 20th one, I finally said it was like shooting fish in a barrel and suggested he concentrate on something a little more rare.

Public snogging in Rome (and Florence, too, it turns out) is as common as finding Irish in an Irish pub. The photo that goes with this post was taken today. I have enough different snogging couple photos to make a collage. Marilynn and Declan went out later while I did a little work, and they reported seeing several more couples in amorous, public embraces.

I decided a couple of days ago to write this column for Valentine’s Day. You’re welcome, by the way. Not 10 seconds after we started talking about this column over dinner last night, the woman at the table behind us was sitting in her beau’s lap. They weren’t going at it (fortunately for me, because I’d just tried the chicken pate and was having trouble keeping it down), but they were getting friendly. Very friendly. And there’s no way they overheard us.

We all think that when our parents created us, angels were singing softly while God shone his gentle light upon us. It’s inconceivable that your mom was wearing a leather bustier and holding a riding crop while your dad screamed about being a bad boy and needing punishment. But I’m sure it happens that way for some couples.

Please don’t misunderstand … I love people who are in love. That’s great. I just don’t need to see it. Aside from a little hand-holding, save your juicy love for the bedroom—or the dungeon, because who am I to judge.

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all!

For the Love of a Feline

It’s not all raindrops and roundabouts here in Belfast, because we left a cherished family member back in Decatur—our beloved cat, Gunner.

Even Marilynn, who wasn’t much of a cat person before she met me, quite likes our mainly black, mainly Burmese (according to the vet) cat. It’s funny, but despite growing up with cats and living around them all my life, she is the first cat I’ve ever picked.

And Gunner definitely is Daddy’s little girl, racing me up the stairs (or down) from my office or seeking attention while I’m in the office. Most afternoons, after her nap, she will either stretch out and knead the back of my chair or sit beside my chair and touch my elbow with her paw until I respond.

It’s to my advantage with Gunner that I’m home all day, since my office and house are the same place.

New house, new cat

Our old cat, Bogger, died a few years back, and we already were considering moving from Atlanta to Decatur and didn’t want to get a new cat immediately, much to Declan’s consternation. And when we did move, we rented the house for several months while old house was on the market.

But the weekend after our house closed, Declan and I went to Petco to see the adoption cats, to just look, you know.  We often visited the PetSmart near our old home on the weekends, so I thought all pet stores did this. Apparently not, so, not wanting to disappoint the lad, I suggested visiting the DeKalb shelter. I knew that cats had been free during November and were just $10 in December, including shots, fixing, microchip and certificate for follow-up vet visit.

Don’t tell Gunner this, but we actually picked another cat that turned out to be adopted before picking Gunner. It was destiny, though, that we found Gunner, who was called Jenny at the time. Declan and I are fans of Arsenal in the English Premier League, and we knew any animal we adopted would be called Gunner.

She took to us immediately. When Gunner was smaller, she’d stand on the supports under the chair and walk among the chairs that way. She would also sit in in the well of the front-loading washer and watch the clothes spin or climb the floor fan in our bedroom, wrapping her paws around the motor and hanging on.

Gunner loves to play laser mouse, sometimes jumping half way up the wall in the TV room. She also likes looking out the window (especially with the window open), chattering at the birds gathered at the feeder or flitting around the yard. And she knows how to get what she wants, with a look or a well-placed paw. She’s like the dog we’ve never had.

When needs must

But as any animal owner knows, adulthood can be somewhat different than a pet’s childhood. Gunner has mellowed somewhat, and we really didn’t want to move her while we were in the UK, but one of our renters is allergic to cats.

After a few false starts, Gunner has found a temporary home with one of Marilynn’s grad students, who has an older cat that apparently doesn’t care there’s another cat living there.

Here’s part of Nancy’s mid-January report: “But to be honest, she hasn’t made herself completely ‘at home’ at this point; she stays upstairs, in my room the majority of the time, but has been slowly venturing forth (especially when she’s in ‘Jungle She-Cat’ mode!). That said, it’s not like she’s ‘unhappy.’”

Nancy reported several days later that Gunner and her cat Malachi were sharing the bed with her, albeit on opposite sides, so progress continues to be made.

So while we’re having a blast here in Belfast, we have mixed emotions about leaving Gunner behind.

Happy Chinese New Year … Well, Kinda

Welcome to the Year of the Cock, Belfast style. At least on the streets around Queen’s University, you can see a fair number of Asian students, so maybe it’s not surprising that the city has a Chinese New Year celebration.

But what you may find surprising is that less than half the acts we saw during a public event at the Ulster Hall were Asian. The reggae band didn’t qualify. Neither did the Polish dancers. Or the belly dancers, for that matter. But what about the Scottish dancers, the Irish dancers or the break dancers? No. No. And, ah, no.

So Chinese New Year in Belfast was more of a melting pot event. Some of the acts were surprisingly good. Others were decidedly less so. But it was all good fun nonetheless. Marilynn just called it, “Sweetly multicultural.”

Reggae? REGGAE? No feckin’ way!

My favorite Internet radio station is Radio Paradise, but every time I hear a song from anyone named Marley, I hit the Play Something Different button as quickly as possible. I don’t necessarily hate reggae (love the Peter Tosh take on “Johnny B Good” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Downpressor Man”), but all Marley music sounds the same to me. Maybe I just like reggae remakes.

But the reggae act was by far my favorite. Not because I like reggae, but because of the lead singer, who played the bongos with such gusto and got the crowd on its feet. The break dancers were, good too. All Irish (I assume), and all together every step, pop, drop and cartwheel of the way. Maybe I liked it because it was the most surprising part of a very surprising event.

Among the expected (i.e. Asian) part of the show, of course I liked the Chinese dragons best. Since they were on the playbill, we would have been greatly disappointed not to have seen them. The show included three, actually, that performed both on stage and up and down the aisles of Ulster Hall.

‘Stairway to …’ Belfast?

Speaking of Ulster Hall, we stumbled upon a timeline of the venue while we were leaving. It opened in 1862 after construction that cost under 14,000 pounds. While not as grand as the Grand Opera House, it still is a great place to see a show.

And over the years, it has played host to a wide range of events, including the first Northern Ireland appearance of a British band called Led Zeppelin. On that night, March 5, 1971, the band performed live for the first time “Stairway to Heaven.”

You can hear that version on You Tube, but it’s not very good quality. Instead, I’d recommend this reminiscence from a writer for the Belfast Telegraph who attended the concert as a stubbly faced 18-year-old.

“That night in the Ulster Hall was the first public performance of Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and we didn’t like it. Too ‘ballady’ for Led Zeppelin was our thoughts.”

Maybe someone will be talking about the 2017 Chinese New Year celebration 45 years later. Not likely, but few in Ulster Hall that night in 1971 thought that about “Stairway to Heaven,” either.

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.