Sometime this summer, if all goes well, my family is taking a trip overseas: to Northern Ireland. It’s hard to believe that on one side of my husband’s family (maternal), he is a first generation American; a descendent of immigrants as we all are. His mother was born and raised in County Antrim, in and around Belfast. We had often talked about visiting, taking our kids with heir grandmother, but time (and other circumstances) were not on our side. She passed away, almost one year ago, and she wanted her ashes to be returned to her homeland in two specific places. So, that is what we’re planning to do. I’m finding it difficult to balance the solemnity of carrying and scattering her ashes. observing her last wishes, and giving my kids (and my husband) the once in a lifetime chance to travel over the ocean to another country.
Traveling to another country is an event; an experience that is hard to replicate. Living in New York, and in my case, having extended family in Canada, we’ve had several opportunities since my childhood to cross the northern border, but Europe and the United Kingdom in particular have a different set of customs and way about them that will seem, well, um, foreign.They, the British, are our distant cousins; the family you don’t see but on the very special occasions or exchange holiday cards with, but we still have cemented ideas about them through stereotypes and television. I already know my kids are going to flip out over a proper Irish breakfast. When they ask me for something to eat in the mornings here, the answer is cereal? Or granola bars? Glass of water anyone?
There’s airplane etiquette, the decibels they speak at, loud gum chewing, pointing, and a whole host of other things we probably haven’t thought of.
The first time I visited the UK was during college, and they saw this American coming from a mile away. I was a quiet person, and I was still too loud to be mistaken for a native. Of course, there was my accent: New York, but pretty unnoticeable here in the States. It was like a beacon, a blaring on the same pitch as a fire horn. I also didn’t drink Diet Coke at that time, so I would ask for regular Coke. I always got teased because what is diet? Irregular? The UK did introduce me to lemon in my soda and milk in my tea, so I am eternally grateful for that!
As a cynical, wary American, I also had to quickly learn to take the friendliness in stride and at face value. There was always a smile, a helpful person no matter the situation. Leaning into the car to give directions was not uncommon, nor was changing my mind in recommending a local place to eat. One example from that first time so long ago had my friend and I standing in the rain trying to read a map, and a woman came from her house with an umbrella, crossed the road and gave us directions that took several minutes off our journey from the way we would have planned taking. I won’t encourage my kids to talk to strangers, but the way there really is much different than what we’re used to here, being side-eyed and ignored even when someone is right in front of you, in your path.
One thing they’ll need to remember is they will be asked about their holiday, not their vacation. There are no French fries in the UK; not even in France and in some places ketchup is called red sauce as compared to brown (HP sauce). Their fries are chips, and their version of chips are called crisps. The native drink is tea, not coffee. Iced tea is barbaric; at least it was on my first visit.
Driving in a too small car on the wrong side of the road, roundabouts every few feet and signs in some kind of hieroglyphic alphabet code of A3 to M4, left exit, third exit of the super-roundabout to A2 and B3, and you have a sadistic mix of Bingo and you sank my battleship. It will be more than culture shock; it will be white knuckle time even for the back seat drivers. We will probably need to provide car sick bags, especially for the lucky one who gets the middle seat.
The first thing on our to-do list for this weekend is to let everyone sit down with a AAA tour book and choose something they’re interested in doing while we’re there. I know my husband would like to see where the Titanic was built; two of his great uncles were part of the crew of builders. I would like to see something holy and ancient, perhaps a castle or a burial mound. My comic book fan family have discovered that there is a Forbidden Planet in Belfast, so that is already on their list. They’ll also need to include a little wish list of what they want to bring home – postcards, keychains, pins, clothes as well as photos, graveside etchings, perhaps sand from the Mourne Mountain where my mother-in-law wants some of her ashes to be spread. Most importantly, I hope they will bring home memories of far away family and stories of their grandmother.
We may also take a few days to see northern Wales (there is a holy well associated with my patron that I’d like to make a pilgrimage to), and possibly London. I also wouldn’t mind a detour to Stonehenge on the way east, but we still need to sort out transportation, lodging, and budget and of course, returning to Belfast to fly back home. Those specifics are still up in the air.
Of course, before any of that happens, the little ones need passports, we might need visas, my husband and I definitely need international driver’s licenses, and all of that must come before plane tickets and itineraries. We’ve already taken their photos, and ours for the IDL. We’ll print out the other forms this weekend. I can only hope the State Department is up to the challenge. Their website says 6-8 weeks to receive passports, and I will keep you updated.
In a travel post next week, I will include resources you may find valuable for your own summer holidays, abroad or at home.