Stripped Bare, Here Was The Idea…
I had packaged the weeklong tour of Ireland, marketed it to readers of the travel magazine I was publishing at the time, and then decided to tag along for the trip with my parents and my then 8-year-old daughter. It was a chance for a family vacation that doubled as a preliminary scouting expedition.
My first travel adventures with best friends from high school and college had planted the seed, which, thanks to the whole world perspective of Agora, the publishing company where I was working, was then nurtured by dozens of business trips to London, Paris, Hong Kong, and beyond in the dozen-plus years to follow. By the time of this Ireland discovery tour, I had a clear personal agenda: I wanted to live in Europe.
As I was growing up, so was Agora. By my mid-30s, I was a vice president for the group, managing two divisions, and Agora was pushing ahead with its aggressive plan for globalization, with offices in London and Hong Kong and an interest in establishing a presence in the EU. Coincidentally, this was the age of the Celtic Tiger, and Ireland was working hard to attract further foreign investment. Its Industrial Development Agency (IDA) was offering a corporate tax rate of only 12%, grants for each Irish national employed, and other incentives to foreign companies that’d agree to establish offices in certain Irish cities. This program got Agora’s attention, and a plan emerged. Agora’s EU base would be in Ireland, and I’d move there to man it.
We had a dinner to discuss the plan formally. In an Agora conference room decorated with Irish flags, we dined on catered shepherd’s pie and toasted with Irish whiskey. I was young, naïve, and enthusiastic enough not to question…well, anything. It’s cliché, I realize, but it’s only in the hindsight of the intervening near 15 years that I can say: Boy, did I not know what I did not know. And I’m thankful for that. I’d say that what you need more than anything when you embark on an adventure of this sort is naïve enthusiasm.
Stripped bare, here was the idea: I’d leave my hometown (the city where I’d been born and had lived my entire life until this point), my family, my friends, Kaitlin’s school, and the stable position with loads of upside I’d achieved within the publishing company where I’d been working so hard for so long.
Step 2, I’d take off with my young daughter to build a whole new life in a whole new place where I knew no one and had no existing infrastructure of support. For some reason, this seemed a reasonable plan of action to me. Perhaps because I was blissfully (some might say foolishly) unaware of what I was signing on for.
My first challenge was to decide where this new Agora EU office might be based. The Irish IDA had given us three options–Sligo, Galway, or Waterford, three places whose local economies they were particularly interested in jump-starting. Thus the need for the scouting expedition. I’d been to Ireland before, but only on holiday and not to any of those cities.
The first morning of the Discovery Tour I’d organized, I sat at the head of a table in the meeting rooms of the Jury’s Hotel in Dublin with the 25 tour-goers, including my parents and my daughter, who I’d be traveling with for the coming seven days. We regrouped on the itinerary: Dublin to Wexford to Waterford, then one or two nights each in Cork, Sligo, Belfast, and, finally, back to Dublin. As plans for the week were confirmed, I mentioned to the gentleman sitting to my right that I’d had trouble accessing my e-mail from the hotel business center earlier that morning.
“I don’t want to take off without checking in with the office in Baltimore,” I explained, “but I can’t figure out how to access my account.”
“You should ask that fellow down at the end of the table to help you,” my new friend offered. “His name is Lief Simon. I think he knows about computers.”
Lief Simon, I learned over the coming few days, a longtime reader of the travel magazine I was publishing, was in Ireland with an agenda something like my own. He, too, was on the tour not as a tourist but a scout. Lief, divorced from his wife of five years just two months earlier, wanted to make another big change in his life. He wanted to move from Chicago, Illinois, where he’d been living and working while married, to somewhere in Ireland.
He also wanted to make the move from being an employee to building something of his own. Lief had two ideas: He thought he might either buy a pub and try out life as an Irish publican…or invest in a sprawling Irish estate with the intention of converting it to a center for corporate retreats.
In Sligo, one typically overcast misty Irish summer day, we toured several properties for sale, including a 150-year-old house with barns and other outbuildings, on a half-dozen acres, falling to ruin but full of potential. In the hotel bar that night, after dinner, I sat with my mom, dad, and daughter, revisiting the day’s discoveries.
“Some of the others and I are going to meet in the room across the way to talk about that big old farmhouse we viewed today,” Lief mentioned as he passed by, leaning in to our small circle so I could hear him, “if you’d like to join us. Maybe you could give me your opinion. Do you think that’d work for my corporate retreat idea?”
The final night of the tour, back in Dublin, Lief, again in passing, mentioned that he and the others were taking taxis across town to a dance club. Would I like to come along?
We danced until closing time, made our way back to the hotel, shared a quick hug at the elevators, and wished each other well.
I returned to Baltimore to continue formulating a plan. Now that I’d seen more of the country, I had some opinions. Sligo, on Ireland’s wild and windy northwestern coast, has a Wuthering Heights kind of appeal but didn’t seem like a place to try to build a business or raise a daughter. I focused my research on Galway and Waterford.
Then one afternoon the phone rang in my office.
“One of the guys from your trip to Ireland last month called to ask for your number.”
It was Patti, one of the girls who’d helped to organize the tour with me.
“Which guy?” I asked.
“His name is Lief Simon. He called this morning to say he wanted to speak with you. I told him I’d have to check first.”
“The one we went dancing with on the final night in Dublin,” Patti explained.
“Ah…OK…yes, go ahead and give him my number.”
Two hours later, when I returned from a meeting, I had a voice mail message:
“Hi. This is Lief Simon. We met in Ireland a couple of weeks ago. I’d like to take you to dinner. Give me a call…”
Followed by four phone numbers–apartment, work, cell, and weekend house. I called the work number.
“I was hoping we could get together,” Lief explained.
“Get together? You’re in Chicago, and I’m in Baltimore.”
“I’ll come to Baltimore next weekend if you’ll have dinner with me.”
Lief came to Baltimore, and we had dinner. Two weeks later, I traveled to Chicago, and we had dinner. Two weeks after that, Lief was back in Baltimore.
He and I both needed to make return trips to Ireland, Lief to continue his property search, me to decide in which city I’d base the new office, Waterford or Galway.
“Let’s go back together,” Lief suggested.
And we did.
Our final night in Dublin this trip we stayed at a small bed and breakfast called the Charleston House just outside the city. The morning we were to fly back to the States, Lief made another suggestion.
“Maybe we should move to Ireland together,” he offered shyly. “I mean, what if we got married?”
And that became the start of our plan. You know much of the rest of the story already, but I’ll continue to share bits and pieces of it in these dispatches as I continue working through the manuscript for my next book (from which today’s offering is taken). More soon.
P.S. How did we decide finally between Galway and Waterford? Lief had identified a piece of property, Pouldrew House, he was interested in purchasing for his corporate retreat development idea, and it sat just outside Waterford City. Lief didn’t end up buying Pouldrew House. His plan was detoured as he became more and more involved in the publishing operation I was setting up. I heard years later that Pouldrew House did sell, though…to then-couple Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.
Writing up this part of our story for my book, I’ve been remembering the first night I arrived in Waterford City as a resident. I’d taken the train down from Dublin, solo, as Kaitlin and Lief were still in the States. Arriving at Heuston Station in Waterford with eight oversized suitcases, two backpacks, a purse, and a laptop, I caught the attention of a lovely Irishman and his wife. The couple had sat across from me for the three-and-a-half-hour train ride from Dublin and took pity, I guess, on this young woman arriving late and alone in a new city with so much stuff. They offered to deliver me to the Granville Hotel, where I planned to stay. Very fortunate for me, their waiting car turned out to be big enough to hold all of us and all my bags, too.
We drove out of the train station and across the bridge into Waterford, and it is this snapshot of the city that I have carried with me all these years. Waterford by day isn’t much to write home about. Once a busy, bustling trading port city with ships lining the quays importing and exporting to France, Spain, and beyond, Waterford when we arrived was forgotten and struggling. But, at night, crossing the River Suir, with the lights of the water-front Georgian townhouses twinkling in the harbor, Reginald’s Tower in the distance, standing guard over the city as it has since the start of the 13th century, you could imagine the place as it once must have been. At night, viewed from the bridge into town, Waterford can appear magical…