I signed too... Sandy said this is "so 80s."  Well, ok, apparently I'm not too original

I signed too… Sandy said this is “so 80s.” Well, ok, apparently I’m not too original

So you wanna know what I learned from this little Belfast trip, don’tcha? 

C’mon, admit it…

Over the past couple weeks, many of my conversations have gone something like this:

Friend:  Hey Mel, how was Belfast?

Me:  Oh man, it was amazing.  I loved it there – great people, great food, incredible architecture, a rich history… I’d go back in a heartbeat.  The project was a little rough, 10 to 15 hour days, even over the weekend, y’know…[chuckle]

Friend:   Did you know the people on your team?

Me:  Nah, we never met before until we arrived.

Friend:   Oh, gosh.  Yeah, I don’t know if I could do that… [snort]

Now let’s get real:  people intuitively know that working in groups is ridiculously difficult, especially when you don’t know your team, there are cultural differences involved and the timetable is compressed.  As a social-cognitive psychologist, both the Belfast project and my previous one in the UAE were my own personal psychological laboratory for up-close-and-personal learning about one of my very favorite topics, INTERPERSONAL POWER.

Interpersonal power?

Yes, power. 

I was a rat in the maze on this one.  Good times.

And because I think interpersonal power is so dang important, I’m going to give you a 5 minute course, no travel required.

(But first, a disclaimer:  the views, research interpretation and opinions expressed in this post – and this blog in general – are my own and in no way reflect or are associated with those of my employer.  Just in case you were wondering.  Continuing…)

Devito (2004) describes power as present in all relationships and interactions with others.  It influences decisions you make, the friends you have and the success you feel.  He states that “interpersonal power is what enables one person to control the behavior of the other” (p. 334) and describes 5 types of power:

  1.  Referent power occurs when others want to be like you or identified with you, often as a result of attractiveness or prestige.  Examples would include employees who emulate a manager or a young girl who looks up to her older sister.
  2. Legitimate power occurs when others “believe you have the right – by virtue of your position – to influence or control their behavior” (p. 343).  Managers, parents and teachers all hold legitimate power.
  3. Expert power occurs when others perceive you as having knowledge in a specific domain.  Any type of expertise, when it is recognized by other people, provides this kind of power, as seen in doctors, lawyers and even… psychologists.  ;-P
  4. Information or persuasion power occurs when others are compelled by your “ability to communicate logically and persuasively” (p. 344).
  5. Reward and coercive power occurs when you are able to reward, punish, or remove rewards from others.  Usually, individuals with this type use combinations of reward and coercive powers to control others’ behavior.  For example, teachers can control grades, social approval/disapproval, letters of recommendation, etc.; managers can control raises, promotions, social approval/disapproval, etc.

It’s important to note here that power is defined by how others see you, not how you see yourself.  While you might think you’re a great communicator, for example, it’s really others who perceive you this way.  So unless you get a lot of clues from others that you’re persuasive, clear and logical, you don’t really possess this power.

The other point I find helpful to overtly recognize is that we also give power to other people.  If you listen to someone and allow them to influence you, you’re giving them information power.  If someone uses threat of coercive power and you bend to their will, you’re handing them power.  It’s often difficult (and possibly painful) to recognize our own role in someone else’s power.

My Belfast and Al Ain projects were excellent opportunities to observe how I and my various teammates responded to often dramatic shifts in power over a short period.   In our regular day jobs, we were all probably well-accustomed to the type of power we have (or didn’t have) and maybe even took it for granted.  Going to a new, independently-defined project meant that some of us may have lost familiar forms of power.  Others gained forms of power they never had felt or experienced before.   All this led to a bunch of individual stress and emotion, natural outcomes of such a major, rapid interpersonal power shift.  Nonetheless, there was a project to be done:   a huge part of both our individual and team success depended on quickly sorting out power within our work teams and coping with it under intense time pressure.

As you might guess, these projects were profound opportunities for self-reflection – and honestly, it wasn’t any different than the issues we all have on a day-to-day basis, no matter where we interact, working or not.

It was just more… intense than most of the time. 

Here are six questions (plus a bonus) that helped me sort out my personal lessons learned:

What 1-2 kinds of power do I mostly rely on in my usual roles?  Which ones do I perceive myself as lacking? 

This helped me understand how I get things done on a day to day basis.  The power I have as a mom is quite different than the power I have as an employee, for example.  And I’m way more cognizant of the power I lack than owning what I have.  More important:  do I really want a different type of power or am I just adopting some external standard of what’s supposedly important?

Oops.  Work in progress.

What power do I have within this specific situation?

This question helped me recognize how I could best use my skills within the context of each project.  In my case, the power I acquired was similar in both teams but realized in differently based on the relative power of others in the group.

What emotions am I experiencing as I interact in this situation?  Am I able to control my emotions enough to stay productive and engaged?

Ah, emotions.  Negative emotions like frustration, anger, depression are common when you are coping with challenging situations, like team interaction, travel, deadlines.   The extent to which we are able to diffuse our own negative emotions is often directly related to our individual and group success (real or perceived).  Obviously, some of us are better at it than others – I certainly don’t claim to be great myself, although I’m much better than when I was younger (hallelujah).

How can I use my power to achieve the best possible outcome for this project?

This is possibly the most difficult question to answer honestly, because benefit for the project might mean you won’t get some highly desired personal benefits.  It also means you have to have a realistic and accurate view of your own contributions as perceived by yourself and others, which can also be a serious freaking challenge!   In my own case, on one team, I had to fight myself to enable the best project outcome because my personal needs demanded exactly the opposite behavior of the best team outcome, so I had to stretch myself and counter my own nagging, perpetual self-doubt (sound familiar, ladies?).  I also had some feedback that made me (temporarily) question whether I should be stretching or asserting.  UncomfortableStretched and asserted anyway.   On my other team, I was able to serve the project while simultaneously serving my own needs way more easily.  Others expressed similar internal conflicts, although they might not have seen it in quite this way.

Bonus question:   how can I build on my natural power in my everyday life?

Sure, it’s easy to go off on some adventure, get some big view of yourself in a new context and make some changes thanks to your new self-reality.  But it’s a heck of a lot easier to do it in your everyday life and way less difficult on your family.  Look around.  Be honest.  Talk to people.  You can figure it out if you get out of your own way, because it’s been there all along.

Done and done.  Hope you enjoyed this 5 minute exercise in self-insight. 

(Yeah, honest self-questioning can make you squirm uncomfortably.)

Now, go forth and prosper.  Oh… and let me know if the seven questions illuminated as much for you as they did for me!  #smartercities Challenge

Reference:  Devito, J.  (2004)  The interpersonal communication book, 10th ed.  Boston:  Pearson.


Before I went to Belfast, I put together a short list of things you… er, I, didn’t know about Belfast.  Then later at the beginning of the trip, I put together an even shorter list of radically cool things.

Yeah, I didn’t know jack back then.

Uh, a month ago.

Y’know… waaaaaay back.

When I was younger and much less sophisticated and worldly than I am now.

But NOW… oh, friends, NOW, I need to issue a serious revision.

Big time.

Must be done. 

Lemme just say it now:  BELFAST ROCKS!

It’s an amazing city and a grrrrreat!!!! place to visit.  You need to put Northern Ireland on your short list, immediately.

(you’re still here?  I said:  put it on your short list!)


(Ok, if you’re asking this NOW, you clearly haven’t been reading my blog closely enough.  Get on that, please.)

Here’s my list of all the stuff I discovered in 3 short weeks that I love about Belfast and Northern Ireland.  (And let’s be clear here:  I was working 10-15 hour days, including weekends, so if I can find all this when I was distracted by this crazy *work* thing, imagine what you can find if you go there just for fun.)

Let’s go:

1.  The people – Gosh, how do I even describe the generosity, openness and friendliness of the people of Belfast?  Belfast City Council, MCI, the Hilton, all the community/voluntary/statutory professionals, even random strangers in the market.  Everyone I met was just smashing… and beyond accommodating, even when you’re vegan.  And Americans have the rep of being friendly out-and-about in the world?   Go to Ireland, friends.  We got nuthin’ on them.

2.  Architecture – I totally loved the mix of ancient buildings with ornate styles right beside brand new, highly stylized and glass-abundant buildings.  The architecture mix was a huge contributor to my overall impression of Belfast that it’s got a rich sense of history with a forward-looking perspective.  Love that.

3.  Titanic Museum – Gosh, simply a GREAT museum.  Inspiring and moving too.  Loved loved loved it.  Also love that it was a huge gamble on the part of the city that is handsomely paying off.  A Must Do.

4.  Black Cab Tour – Excellent tour.  Peter, our guide, really inspired me with his own story of living through the Troubles and making it to the other side.  Must Do.

5.  Victoria Square and downtown shopping – Another Must Do that I didn’t do enough.  What a great outdoor shopping area this is… is it just me or are clothes cooler in Europe?  I had 2-ish happy hours just wandering around stores on the first Saturday morning with a soy latte in hand, happy as a clam.  But that was it.  Sigh.  There is a black leather(-like!) jacket that has my name on it in Next.  If I wouldn’t have been working so blooming much, it would’ve come back in my suitcase.  (see? this whole *work thing* interfered in numerous ways…)

6.  Restaurants – Gosh, fabulous restaurants.  We went to some truly delish places – Ox, Shu, Deane’s spring immediately to mind – and they also did a wonderful job of accommodating my dietary preferences.  I didn’t even have to play the Cancer card to get a vegan meal, either.  They just cooked me up some plants because they’re nice like that (see #1).  Bless these lovely establishments.

7.  Countryside – Ah, the Emerald Isle.  Yes… it’s quaint, green, rolling-hilled… exactly what you’d expect.  I didn’t see much but what I did see?  Beautiful.

8.  Giant’s Causeway and the Northern Coast – Fabulous.  (am I overusing this adjective?)  The Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it should be.  Must Do.

9.  Clean Air – As a cancer survivor, I am thrilled and delighted to breathe fresh clean air.  I did, a lot.  One of the cab drivers told me that they brought children to Ireland after Chernobyl to heal, due to the clean air.   Yes, please.

10.  Castles – Alas, I only got to see two, Dunluce Castle and Stormont Castle, which is where we met an Assistant Deputy Minister for discussions about Belfast’s deprivation and how to move beyond segregation.  Both beautiful but want to see more.  Love castles.  Want to live in one.  Preferably with a turret.

11.  Sense of History – Ah, history.  Belfast has history in spades and, most seemed to agree, is still living their tumultuous history for a couple more generations.  It is a rich and difficult history, to be sure, but also a study in human behavior, which is why it’s so fascinating.

12.  Revitalization and Inspiration – This is perhaps the thing I loved the most about Belfast:  even though the legacy of the Troubles is difficult, it was so incredibly inspiring to me to see so many people rising to the occasion and working so hard to make Belfast a better place.  Admittedly, this is a Survivor’s perspective (something I know a teeny bit about):  the deepest sadness and fear – the worst things that happen – also bring out the absolute best in humanity.  I found it incredibly inspiring, not unlike making it to the other side of my own personal trial.  Hooray for coming out the other side!

13.  City Hall – Our workplace for 3 weeks!  A great, historic building.  We presented in the Great Hall, which was virtually destroyed in WWII.  The sound of the city rushing by as we walked to this inspiring building every day… priceless.

14.  Game of Thrones – What an unexpected pleasure it was to find out after I left home that my favorite show (right up there with Sopranos, Seinfeld) is filmed in Belfast.  The countryside and Northern coast reminded me of the show and touring the set was absolutely marvelous, a real treat!  There are even Game of Thrones tours all around Northern Ireland too…  so many things to do, so little time.  Sigh.

15.  Cathedrals – I got to visit three:  St. Anne’s, St. Peter’s and the Clonard Monestary cathedral.  Awe-inspiring, beautiful.

16.  Running by the Lagan River – I did this several times, but there’s nothing like that first time (here), which is when I saw a fox.  A fox!  In a city!  I never saw a real fox before… y’know, one that was alive.  So cool.  I love it that there are so many green spaces and walking trails.  Needed way more time to explore….

17.  Seagulls and Cathedral Bells – The first and last sounds I heard every morning and night were the sounds of St. Anne’s chimes and the scream of seagulls.  An unusual auditory juxtaposition but so iconic.

18.  Crumlin Road Prison – Fascinating.  Eerie.  I definitely would be too chicken to do the paranormal tour at night.

19.  Belfast Community Circus – I was so incredibly inspired by the children and teenagers in this circus.  It was but one example of integrated programs going on in Belfast that is breaking down the traditional boundaries between community backgrounds.  Awesome.

20.  St. George’s Market – Another favorite, just a stone’s throw from our hotel.  I got to have lunch a couple times and breakfast once at the market.  Loved the sun streaming in the sunlights on throngs of people shopping and eating and bustling about.

21.  Fish n’Chips – It’s all in the post.  Don’t read it if you’re hungry.  Yum.

22.  Wheaten Bread – Another major yum.  Must Eat.

23.  Van Morrison – Aww, I’m chillin’ to my Born to Sing CD as I write this.  Perfect.

24.  C.S. Lewis and Queen’s University –  Loved the little reading room at Queen’s.  Also loved the architecture of the university, as well as how many of our friends at City Hall went there.  As a product of my local (small) undergraduate university, I’m totally down with finding educational value and rigor right under your nose.

25.  Bushmill’s Distillery – Another grand tourist venue and the impetus for the best Mommy’s Gone For Work gifts I’ve ever gotten for Steve.  They have a single malt Irish whiskey that’s aged for 12 years that you can only get on site.  So I did.  Yes, I did give up that much space in my suitcase for Steve.

26.  Belfast Culture Night – This was like an enormous street party that spilled onto multiple streets.  Such a great way to get people downtown.  Another fabulous example of the creative ways Belfast is overcoming segregation and having tons of innovative fun in the process.

27.  Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge – Scary, fun, spectacular scenery.  Loved looking out over the water to Scotland, while hearing waves crashing on cliffs and a cool breeze through my hair.

28.  Crowne pub – Deirdre would squash me if I forgot Guinness at the Crowne.  So I didn’t.  (No, really… it was cool.  All pub-y and Victorian.  Y’know.  Cool, not like a bar.  Soooo American. *scoff*)

Whew, I’m sure I’m forgetting something here…. but as you can see, I’ve got more in this list than I had days in Northern Ireland.  There were many things I would have loved to see but didn’t have time for too:  the zoo, Carrickfergus Castle, Belfast Castle, Cave Hill, Ulster Museum…  more shopping.  Lots, lots more shopping.

So, here’s the nutshell version:  go to Belfast, but not for work.  You won’t be sorry.  #smartercities Challenge

Remember that Van Morrison lives in Belfast and is about to receive a Freeman of Belfast award?

Cool, right?

I think so too.

So how cool it to open a very thoughtful thank you gift from the Belfast City Council and see this:


They tell me he doesn’t do many autographs…  shucks, and there’s one just for lil ol’ me.

I am really touched.

Thank you to Jayne, my friends at the City Council and Van Morrison.  I am deeply honored to have been able to come to your wonderful, dynamic city.  You are an inspiration. 

Here’s a tune from the CD so you can enjoy with me too, friends.  Open the Door (To Your Heart).  Take it away, Mr. Van Morrison…

#smartercities Challenge

On Saturday (Oct 5), after three 80 to 90 hour weeks of work, I spent 3 hours at Belfast airport, 7 hours flying, 3 hours at Newark airport, 2 1/2 flying, 35-ish minutes driving and opened the door from the garage to see this:


This would be the remains of my former kitchen. 

And actually, this photo isn’t quite right because that wall of 2×4 studs (on the right side of the photo) was actually gone.  In its place was a long rectangle of semi-dry cement with some wires sticking up in the middle of the room.  All the contents of my former cabinets, along with the toppled furniture from the living room, was strewn through the dining room, entry hall and master bedroom, covered with a fine layer of white dust, probably from the jackhammering.

Yes, jackhammering.

As in demolition.

It seems the home remodel project that was supposed to occur a month after I returned from Belfast actually started a week after I left.

Oh, and that’s not all, my friends… oh no, sir!

Let the following list be a warning to all you Working Mommies about what can happen when you Leave Daddy In Charge:

1.  Steve dismantled my office.  My desk is now in my daughter’s room, the spare desk in my son’s room and my office holds a pool table.

Check and mate.

Seven and a half years after giving up his Man Cave to become the Children’s Playroom, Steve re-established his territory.   There’s no answer to a pool table on the second floor, along with displacement of several other large furniture items.

Steve wins.  Temporarily.

2.  As I noted, the home remodel project commenced.   The words “jackhammer,” “demolition,” “plumbing rerouting,” “electrical non-compliance” are not words you want to hear when 4000 miles from home.  Or, at least, they aren’t if you’re planning to go back.

3.  Our cat died.  This wasn’t entirely unexpected, since she was 17-ish years old.  Steve reluctantly told me during the marathon of the second weekend, which depressed an already exhausted and relatively pathetic me.  [big sigh]

4.  Choice slips.  Yes, these are what used to be known as “notes from the teacher,” meaning you were in big trouble at school.  Alex scored three of them the second week I was gone.  Outstanding.

5.  Steve bought a “keg-erator.” 

What the…?

Yeah, a kegerator. 

Apparently, after collecting his first batch of beer made with a friend, Steve decided he’s going to become some sort of world-famous micro-brewmaster.  So he bought a refrigerator contraption that houses 2 kegs and taps on top.

It’s enormous.

An eyesore.

And sitting in the dining room.

6.  The upstairs TV blew out.  Was also on its last legs, so probably not entirely unexpected.  I’m just glad he didn’t buy a new TV, although he did sit a small TV on top of the large TV, in yet another marvel of masculine home decorative decision-making.

7.  Here’s a positive thing:  unlike my last major trip to the United Arab Emirates, there actually were a few vegetables in the refrigerator when I returned.  Sure, they were the same vegetables that were there when I left, but they do deserve a few points for having veggies at all.

Ah, but I’m home….

Here’s the really good news:   Unlike my last big trip, Steve and both the kids were much calmer when I returned, not nearly as frazzled or disheveled as I might have expected.

Everyone survived, including me.


On the way home from the airport, I had to sit in the back seat between both car seats as Alex and Sophie talked at me simultaneously the entire way, while each holding my hand and randomly making a random grab-strangle-hug.  Very sweet.

Sunday:  jetlag, exhaustion, dizzy.  In the morning, I stood in the one path through all our dishes and furniture and started to whimper when I couldn’t figure out how to make toast or coffee in the hall bathroom.  Steve had mercy on me and gave me something to eat.  I pulled myself together enough to have lunch with a dear friend, who had returned to Memphis for a week while I was in Belfast, and we overlapped here for less than a day.  I took her to the airport and went back home to crash and be continuously piled on top of by a 7 and 5 year old.

Total nap time:  20 min.  Awakened by tiny finger poking me in the cheek.

Monday:  Children home from school for a week on Fall Break.  Attempted return to regular job.  7 year old starts to puke his guts out mid-afternoon.  Completely disoriented and jetlagged, I’m appalled at the amount of dust covering every single object and surface in my entire house.   Steve leaves for work at 7am, returning after a client dinner at 10:30 pm.  I’m mercifully sound asleep long before he arrives.

And so, thus began my rather rude return to normalcy after 21 days in Belfast.

Um, yeah. 



Can I go back to 14-hour workdays, please?   Wasn’t Day 21 the END of the challenge?  #smartercities Challenge


IBM experts positive about Belfast but highlight need to focus on long term

9 Oct 2013

Belfast communities are committed to making a difference in their city but need to make more time to focus on the future and less time looking back.

That is one of the conclusions reached by the six-person IBM team who visited the city for three weeks as part of its Smarter Cities Challenge, which aims to help cities around the world deal with pressing city problems.

Belfast was one of just 100 global cities, out of 400 cities that applied, to be chosen to take part in this three year philanthropic programme valued at $400,000 – making it the first on the island of Ireland and the third in the UK to be selected.

The team concluded that the city was in much better physical condition and its communities were much safer than many cities across the USA.

They found that the city has undergone impressive levels of regeneration work, provides significant opportunities for investment and is committed to providing resources to address social change.

IBM also stated that Belfast people were its biggest asset and they commented on the warmth of the welcome they received throughout their visit.

However, they pointed out that perceptions of inequality led to too many people being unwilling to leave their own communities for work and that the sense of belonging they felt in their own local areas needed to be translated into city-wide pride.

Lord Mayor, Councillor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, said: “After three weeks of analysis they have provided the city with a set of recommendations to help us get a lot smarter about how to spend public money on addressing some of the challenges that our city faces.

“They have provided us with advice on how we collaborate across agencies so that as a city we can target public money only on the best interventions that will bring about real and long term improvements to people’s lives.

“The council will take the recommendations gifted to the city by IBM and work with other key city stakeholders and government departments to build a smart city information hub so that we can make better and evidence based decisions for the future of this city and its people.

“Councils are about to change fundamentally by 2015 and the powers of the city, particularly in relation to planning the future of communities, will greatly increase. The recommendations from IBM will be essential in making sure that we agree the right priorities for the city and how to deliver them with the resources we have. “

And just like that, it was the end of our Belfast Smarter Cities Challenge.  On the last day, I went to prison (which rightfully deserved its own post), had meetings with the local IBM team and had lunch with our dear friends from Belfast City Council.  It’s funny how attached you can grow to people in such a brief period.  The Lord Mayor invited us for parting words in his chambers at City Hall.

I awarded the coveted Golden Elvis Sunglasses From Memphis to Peter McNaney, Chief Executive of Belfast City Council.

Why, you ask? 

Because every Chief Executive needs Golden Elvis Sunglasses, that’s why.   (To be honest, I was bummed I didn’t bring 2 pairs because the Lord Mayor really needed some as well.  I hope they’ll share.)

The first of the team to say farewell was June, who I came to respect and adore for her sense of humor along with her open heart.  The fact that she has that deep Scottish accent with all kinds of glottal flaps and trilling [r]s just made her a lot more fun!  My favorite was listening to her imitation of American English.  Sounds like she’s talking out of her nose, hysterical.  Unfortunately, my Scottish imitation sounded… um, not Scottish.  Probably not even English, in spite of years of imitating my British father, sister and niece Linzsigh.  I need more practice.

Linguistic Geek Moment:  a glottal flap is produced by banging your vocal folds together while simultaneously stopping airflow.  In the word “bottle,” most Americans would produce the middle [t] sound, while Scottish and other UK dialects would produce a glottal flap. 

Having all these glottal flaps around was like seeing an endangered snow leopard in its natural habitat.  Love that!  Also, the UK dialects have a lower, more laryngeal resonance focus than American English, which is more anterior and nasal.   All this was discussed with June and Nick (from Preston), both of whom claimed to speak English, instead of whatever it is that we speak in the U.S., a point I obliged by calling ours Americanish.  Many imitations ensued.  Man, do I love linguistics.

We now conclude this Linguistic Geek Moment.

Deirdre, our amazingly awesome local IBMer, who was not only responsible for the original idea of a Belfast Smarter Cities Challenge, but clucked and cooed and kept us all in line the entire time in her motherly way, suggested we conclude our last evening with a pint of Guinness at the very posh Crown pub.  I got the “half pint,” which I inadvertently referred to as a “baby pint” and was quickly reprimanded.  Apparently a baby pint is a different drink entirely.

I can’t keep up with these Irish people. 

In any event, in spite of my mostly-non-drinking-and-severe-beer-disliking status, I actually didn’t mind Guinness.  It was sweeter and more caramelly than I was expecting (um, considering it looks like oil), except it was annoying that it had to “settle” for a few minutes.

I dunno, there are so many RULES.  Drinking in Ireland is complicated.

It ended up we were so tired – yes, the post-project crash was definitely setting in – that we headed back to the hotel in short order.  Hugs all around on our now-familiar 11th floor of the Hilton and then I crawled into bed, listening to the deep chimes of St. Anne’s Cathedral.  #smartercities Challenge


Yep, I’m afraid that on Day 20 of 21 days in Belfast, I went to jail.  Directly to jail, without even passing Go.   You’d think after a long project, successful presentation and far too much time seeing the inside of meeting rooms, I’d leave with more of a whimper than a bang, wouldn’t ya?

Maybe I just went off the rails.

Maybe it was the fatigue.

The stress.

The intense pressure we were under…

[mischievous cackle here]

Ok, seriously?

Tell me you REALLY think I was in jail!  Haven’t I given you the impression I’m a responsible professional in this blog at ALL?

(omigosh, I would be total TOAST at work if I went to jail!!  My manager would freak!  What would my parents say?  My husband!  My poor kids!  C’mon, folks!  I shudder to think of it….)

Alright, here’s the real scoop…

The jail I’m speaking of is Crumlin Road Gaol, a former prison where they sent people during the Troubles, now a museum.  Our most excellent Black Cab tour guide Peter suggested it as a very depressing, but interesting, tour so when Sandy, Nick and I found ourselves with two whole FREE hours on the afternoon of our last day, we took our Mission Completed Afterglow and off we went.

Some photos for your viewing pleasure… (don’t forget, if you click on one of the photos in the gallery below, you’ll get a slideshow!)  #smartercities Challenge

The final presentation, for about 170 leaders across Belfast, occurred in the Grand Ballroom at City Hall.  We had previously seen this beautiful room just over 2 weeks ago during a tour, but walking into it again, now, lent a gravity, a sense of history and responsibility to the work we had completed over the past days.

Nick and I paced the far end of the ballroom to work out our nervous energy as the audience began to file in.   We began with an introduction from the Lord Mayor, IBM’s Ireland Country Manager and Belfast’s Chief Executive.  Then it was our turn:  Anne introduced our proposal and summarized our approach, then I followed with the evidence-based decision model and outcome metrics, then Nick summarized the proposed business process and technology infrastructure.

I stepped up to the podium, took a breath, and began to talk.  I was surprised that my nervousness dissipated immediately – you never know if it will!  I can’t say I remember most of what I said – I tend to go to an indescribable zone when I do presentations that’s beyond thinking;  it’s feeling the room and just knowing without knowing.  I do remember lots of positive body language, heads nodding and attention across the room.   I remember saying several times “finding our common humanity” and that everyone, regardless of where they live, deserves to feel a sense of well-being and empowerment in their own lives.  At the end, I answered several questions about the metrics and various individuals stood to say they supported the proposal and wanted to move forward.  The City Council told us they were pleased with our recommendations too and expressed their intent to continue onward.

Perhaps a huge focus (some might suggest, overfocus) for me personally was the response of the professionals on the front lines, those who are right in the community, working with citizens.  Maybe it was because I remember only too well being a clinician myself and the overwhelming responsibility I felt, how quickly I burned out in the face of real people with real problems.   The day before our presentation, I had the opportunity to read an incredibly moving paper, written by a community worker, following the suicide of a young man in one of the two highly deprived areas of Belfast (these were our case study areas for the project).  His paper chronicled his experience, starting with the finding of the body by the young man’s friends, to telling his girlfriend, to working with the family, to trying to prevent the suicides of his friends.

There are no words. 


I hope that he and all the professionals like him knew that we listened, we heard, that the intensely important work they are doing matters.  I hope our modest proposal will make what they are doing more relevant. more measurable and more successful as Belfast embraces its future.  #smartercities Challenge

He said his name was Peter.  He briskly shook my hand, moving with the sure steps of an athlete.  His T-shirt revealed chiseled arms; his eyes, a mischievous twinkle.  His face burst into an easy smile around crooked teeth that closed in a crossbite.

Peter eased into the rear-facing seat in the back of his black cab with Nick, Sandy and me and launched into a brief history of Belfast and the Troubles.  He said his aim was to present an unbiased account of both sides.  He apologetically unfolded a well-worn map of Belfast, tracing a finger along the parallel Shankill and Falls Roads, where we would see opposing communities on both sides of Belfast’s longest peace wall, stretching 3 1/2 miles from city center to the surrounding hills.  His lilting Irish accent was elegant, contrasting with the half-decade of sectarian fighting he described, peppered with curse words.  Right from the beginning, the Troubles were conveyed with street cred, an account that couldn’t be read in a textbook or heard from a staid, uptight report from someone in a tie.   Peter eagerly jumped into the driver’s seat, chatting all the while as we hurried away from our hotel.

In minutes, we would turn off Shankill Road into a large estate, the ironic name for a public housing community.  Peter deftly stepped from the cab, holding the door as he encouraged us out into the unusual sun of the morning.  He quickly strode from the parking lot across a patch of grass, warning us away from canine-produced land mines, chatting merrily.  At a slight distance, I could see murals of gunmen in balaclava and I wondered if we should really be walking here.  I could imagine someone watching us unseen, through a scope.  It’ll be just a minute, I thought, surely we’ll be ok.  I watched Peter’s confident stride, settling myself in the knowledge that he looked like he could protect us in a street fight, as I glanced down uncomfortably at the wet grass now clinging to my purple ballet flats.

We walked around the estate, pausing at murals adorning the gable end of each building as he recounted each story depicted.   We gazed up at a memorial to a hero of the Troubles, who Peter described as a murderer, responsible for the deaths of more Catholics than any other.  A gruff-looking man walked toward us, trailing a young son and Peter greeted them briskly, his accent thickening so much i couldn’t understand their brief exchange. After the man had passed, Peter said he saw that man often on his tours, always trailed by a different one of his many children.  As we walked, Peter’s encyclopedic knowledge of history, current events and unique trivia became increasingly apparent, as was his gentle, laughing manner.  I littered any break in his monologue with questions.  Later, Nick and Sandy would tease me about interviewing Peter, making our tour a full hour longer than the 2 hours advertised.

I was especially wary of one mural, depicting a gunman with a gun pointed directly at me.  After Peter pointed out that the gun follows you wherever you go in the estate, I tiptoed around, peering over my shoulder, heart racing.  Catcalls rang out across the estate, startling me into walking closer to Peter.

Eventually, Peter’s own story came out:   he had grown up in Belfast’s Catholic community but had married a Protestant girl at the tender age of 14.  Her father was a member of a dangerous Protestant sectarian group, the Orangemen.  The impact of their forbidden marriage was profound:  Peter spent many years as a non-entity at family gatherings but over a lifetime of marriage, his relationship with his father-in-law had evolved to the point where Peter could even now gently “take the piss” out of the older man.   Peter talked of his girls, who now attend an integrated school and play the Irish sport of Gaelic football.  Just a few weeks ago, their grandfather desperately wanted to watch them play in a tournament but refused to go, due to the likely presence of many Catholics.

“Just wear a hat,” Peter had implored, “no one will ever know who you are.”

But the grandfather could not bring himself to attend.

Peter also told us about his own childhood in Belfast, during the height of the Troubles:  at 15 years old, he had seen a friend killed by a bullet while they played ball on their street.  The alley beside his house was the only place hidden from sight in his estate, making it the location where people would be beaten, knee-capped or 6-packed (shot in the elbows, knees and ankles).  I asked him if he was scared growing up.  He said no, that he knew where to go and how to keep his head down and just “get on with it.”  He told us about having his license ripped up one time by Protestant-friendly police who stopped him in his cab; about being hired to drive several large drunk men who were clearly up to no good.  I suspected the well of shocking and horrific stories ran very deep.  The only sign of this history was Peter’s grey hair and a depth to his blue eyes that hinted he had seen more than anyone in their 30s should ever have to see.  Other than that, Peter was jovial, friendly, talkative and so engaging… disarming with his openness.

We ended the tour at St. Peter’s Cathedral.  Peter sat in his black cab, an arm draped nonchalantly over the steering wheel.  As we talked on the street leading to the cathedral, in front of a row of neat orange-bricked rowhomes, the ominous boom-boom-boom of a sectarian parade echoed over the peace wall.  In spite of the bright sun, the quiet street, I felt an ominous fear.  I told Peter we had heard some discussion the day before during a visit to Stormont (the seat of Northern Ireland government) about taking the walls down in 10 years:  what did he think about that?

“That’s bollocks,” he said, “there’s no way that can happen.  Maybe 25 or 30 years, but not 10.  You tell those Deputy Ministers up there on the hill that 10 years is bollocks.”  When I asked, he said the way forward is to integrate the schools and wait for a generation or two to pass.  It was a consistent message we’d hear repeated by other cab drivers throughout our stay in Belfast.

When he drove us back to the Hilton, Peter opened the back door, thanking us for coming on his tour.  He shook Nick’s hand and gave both Sandy and me quick peck on the cheek, wrapping his strong arms around us in a warm hug.  He stepped catlike into his black cab and sped away, leaving me with a new sense of what being a survivor really might mean.  #smartercities Challenge


“You’re going to love Ireland, Mel.  Don’t worry about being vegan.  You’ll eat potatoes, lots of potatoes,” said a friend when I pondered aloud whether it would be easy to be a plant-eater, as my children call me, on the Emerald Isle.

Actually, I didn’t eat many potatoes.  I did have some boiled and mashed with leeks (champ!) and roasted.  Ok, maybe I did eat a fair amount of potatoes. 

And it wasn’t hard to be plant-based, not even as hard as it is in Memphis:  the fine folks of Belfast are incredibly accommodating, happily, outrageously so.  Everywhere I went, they offered their nicest all-plant food to this crazy blonde plant eater, without looking at me askew, even when I was fully prepared to flex to vegetarianism, which I was.  They didn’t even wait for an explanation of This Lifestyle, an explanation I’m often compelled to give in the pregnant pause that follows whenever I disclose my dietary choices.  They just happily offered up whatever vegan thing they had made me, especially when they had forewarning I was coming with the IBM team.

I had a truly lovely vegan meal at our welcome dinner in the Lord Mayor’s private dining room in City Hall.  It was the third-best vegan meal I’ve ever had, as a matter of fact:  the best was at Millenium in San Francisco, followed by Fresh in Toronto.  The Lord Mayor’s chef is not in bad company there, I’d say.

But my favorite thing, which I ate at least once daily, was wheaten bread.

Wheaten bread?

Yes, wheaten bread. 

The hotel served it for breakfast, it came with soup, as a starter and with salads.  It accompanied main courses.  It was available in the hotel, in cafes, in the local market.  It’s a dense, grainy, heavy wheat bread with a cakelike texture.  I’m 100% positive it’s not vegan (at some point, someone said it is made with buttermilk) but I ate it daily for breakfast, slathered with a healthy dose of raspberry jam.

Oh. my. goodness.

Outrageously delicious gently warmed.

For someone like me, who’s allergic to yeast, having a non-yeasted bread was a lovely treat and the main cause of me finding a few extra pounds to bring home from Belfast.  My next mission is to overcome my non-vegan-eating denial and Google up a recipe to veganize so I can eat wheaten bread with abandon at home.

Hmmm.  Or maybe I should rethink that idea….?  #smartercities Challenge