Living Abroad in Belfast, Ireland
Getting To Know A Beautiful Town as an Expat
A castle near Belfast.
My friend suggested getting something to eat. "There's a little caf around the corner — they'll have food at this time of day." I strolled down the narrow road towards the cafe, marveling at how traveling cars would pull courteously in to allow another car to squeeze past in the opposite direction, each driver giving a little wave on passing. No blaring of horns or rude gestures here, just a calm acceptance that the road was small and cooperation was the fastest way to get to your destination.
I mulled over my friend's comment about serving hours. Why wouldn't a cafe or a restaurant not serve food at certain times of the day? I hadn't wanted to reveal my ignorance on the matter. After all, I was only a week off the plane that had brought me over the Atlantic Ocean from Florida, then to Gatwick Airport, and a bumpy transfer flight to Belfast Airport. A black taxi had dropped me into "The Holy Lands" on the south side of Belfast. It is a student area called "The Holy Lands" because the Victorian streets were named after places in the bible. These crumbling brick-terraced houses housed much of the student population of the prestigious Queens University. I was crashing the couch of four student friends sharing a 3-bedroom house in Palestine Street.
I had recently decamped from Ft. Lauderdale and had many friends among the South Florida Irish expats. I had planned to go over, travel, work a few casual jobs for a few months, and then go home. My crystal ball was foggy at the time. I did not know that I would stay for 16 years and counting, marry, have two children and retrain for a second career. All I wanted to do that day was to get a late lunch.
When I reached the little cafe and read the small chalked-in menu on the blackboard, I felt complete confusion. What was a "fry?" A "potato farl?" Wasn't a "soda" something you drank, so why were they saying it was included, toasted, with breakfast? And what was "black and white pudding?" Was that like chocolate and vanilla cream pudding mixed, and why would anyone have that for breakfast? Rashers? Wasn't that a disease? I furtively glanced at the plates of the cafe's diners, but they offered no clues. I didn't recognize anything on the plates except what looked like sunny-side-up eggs, sausages, and baked beans. I ended up panicking and ordered the Ulster Fry. That day, I discovered that I loved potato farls (a sort of flat potato bread that could be fried or baked), toasted soda bread, and rashers (similar to Canadian bacon). Black and white pudding was savory, not sweet, and not for me. I also learned why my friend had commented on "food at this time of day." Most restaurants and pubs in Ireland do not serve food between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. The hours have changed somewhat over the years, and now many offer small nibbles menus between lunch and "tea time," but in 1996, it was rare.
I thought I knew what to expect when I got off the plane. I didn't. Not even close. Even after 16 years here, I still get surprises. My first clue that I wasn't, as the saying goes, "in Kansas anymore," was when the passengers had dispersed from the one flight that day on the 24-seater plane — and then the entire airport shut down. I confirmed it with the airport's Avis Rental Car rep, and yes, since there were no flights due until tomorrow, the airport would shut down. I was lucky to get the last black taxi into the city. There are now two airports in Belfast, and I would be surprised if this still happened, but in 1996, it wasn't unusual.
Getting into Hot Water
Living in a different culture is all about having reality turned on its head. I accepted that being different did not mean wrong, especially after my cafe experience. Life could create some pleasant surprises too. However, my introduction to the Irish hot water system was not one of those "nice surprises." In my stateside life, I never thought about hot water, its origins, and how much it cost. In the U.S., you just turned on the faucet. Simple. Here, you have something called "the immersion," and everyone here learns how to use it from infancy. A switch is flipped in "the hot press" to heat the water, but it must be switched off again within 30 minutes to an hour or two. If not, as I soon discovered through personal experience, you will need the following:
a visit from the plumber (who charges double to work weekends) to replace the burned-out heating element
a trip to the ER for treating second degree burns from the lava-like water
enough money to buy drinks for all your peeved flatmates in the local pub.
Over the years, I have seen many improvements in the hot water system with timers set with heating controls, solar water heating, etc. But the rule of thumb is generally, the older the house, the more temperamental the heating system.
Tea or "Tay?"
Tea was another thing that took a bit of getting used to. Here, it isn't just a beverage; it's also a time of day and a meal. As in, "I'll be there around tea time," "I'd love a cup of tea," or "I'd love my tea now, thanks, I'm starving." Tea time is around five or six in the early evening. A cup of tea is a hot beverage with lots of milk, and tea could also be the main dinner of the day.
If you are having "high tea," you sit down to homemade scones, whipped cream, jam, special small cakes, and tea. Coffee and its derivatives, such as cappuccinos, lattes, and espressos, are considered acceptable beverages but nothing as important as tea. Toddlers drink milky versions of tea. Tea is the first thing offered to any guest, and there is a deep loyalty to certain regional tea brands (such as Barry's Tea, the only kind my husband will drink).
What's the craic wee girl?
If someone asks you this, they are not soliciting drugs or being obscene. "Craic" is the news, the fun, the gossip, and probably many other things that I still don't know about. Strangers happily chat at bus stops, shops, and pubs about anything and share a bit of "craic" — but mostly, the topic is the weather, at least to start with. I never knew so many different ways of talking about rain until I moved here. Had it just rained? Was it going to rain? If so, when? If it was raining, was it "just misting, coming down hard, or a wee drip?" You're always safe with the weather, and I found it a lovely way to pass the time waiting in line, talking to people I'd probably never see again. If in doubt, talk about the weather.
I knew vaguely about The Troubles and the areas I was supposed to avoid. I remember seeing my first tank rumble down Dublin Road in Belfast, a British soldier clutching an automatic weapon and feeling horrified. But I had no idea exactly how segregated Belfast could be until I was trying to get home one evening from a city center shopping mall and joined a queue of people lined up for taxis. When I saw six unrelated people enter one, I asked a gum-chewing teenage girl before me what was happening." These are the black taxis, luv. It depends on where you're going. Those go to the east, those go to the south, those go to the north, and those go to the west."
“But I thought all black taxis took everyone everywhere,” I said, astonished.
"Yes, some do, but not these," she said with a laugh and ran over to a taxi that had just pulled up. And again, that is Belfast: Everyone knows the rules that live here, but no one talks about them.
And What Did You Say Your Name Was?
Taxis were just some things I found confusing in my new home. Sometimes a thick fog would roll over me in the most unlikely places. Sometimes it was an accent I didn't understand, in which case, I would grin maniacally, nod my head, and hope I didn't agree to anything illegal. Sometimes, though, I didn't understand the meaning of certain lines of inquiry. One young guy, chatting me up in a nightclub (or so I thought), asked me my name.
“Shannon,” I said. And with that, he walked away, much to my bewilderment.
I told my friends later what had happened. They laughed and asked me where this had happened. "The Crescent," I replied.
"Ah, well, that's why. It backs up onto the ——-. And 'Shannon' is a Catholic name, so he thought you were Catholic." Well, that explains that, then. As the years went by, I got a lot more canny when given what I call "The Belfast 20 Questions Quiz" (What is your name? Where did you go to school? Where do you live? Do you have family here? Where do you work?) I learned how to become as vague as a native. In Belfast, the unfortunate part of life is constantly being aware of where you are, who you are talking to, what you are talking about, and who might be listening. It is still a sad fact in Northern Ireland, even after the Good Friday agreement, you have to watch yourself, something I never felt I have to do living in the States or the ten years I've lived in the Republic of Ireland.
You You Actually Want To Live Here?
The most frequent question put to me in Belfast, though, was always a disbelieving, "What are you doing here? You left Florida for this place?" followed by a lot of eye-rolling and shifting away in the seat from a mentally unbalanced person. When I would praise the beautiful architecture of Belfast, the fantastic historical sites, the great pubs, the rich cultural heritage, and the brilliant "craic," I would still get a skeptical "Eh?" followed by eager questions of what Florida was like. I got so fed up with this line of inquiry once that I asked the cab driver questioning me at the time, "So if it's so bad, why are you still here?" and gave myself a quiet journey home.
Maybe, Yes, No
In my experience, though, and those of other American expats I've talked to, the biggest culture shock is the indirectness of the people here. Irish (Gaelic) is one of the only languages in the world that does not have a direct way of saying "Yes" or "No," something very evident in the culture. People here hate to disappoint and are adept at dodging direct questions. Depending on the situation and my daily tolerance level, I have found this frustrating and hilarious. Dealing with government agencies and anything here that calls itself "the customer service department" is like landing in a parallel universe where "Maybe, we'll see" means "Absolutely not," and "Yes," means "Whenever we get around to it, be grateful we are talking to you at all and stop whining." You never hear an outright "No."
Working in Belfast
I landed a job working in a pub on my second day in Belfast. The hiring manager gave me a huge ego boost by asking me during the interview in awed tones if I wanted to work there, giving me the impression I was doing them a huge favor. Times were booming for all businesses, and getting a job was much easier than in these times of recession.
I had worked as a waitress in an Irish pub in Ft. Lauderdale for a year and figured I could live on my salary and tips and still save as I did there. How wrong I was. After working for about a month and watching my meager savings in dollars getting eaten up by dollar/sterling conversion, I knew I needed a second job. Irish people do not tip like Americans, and although the hourly wage was fair, it was hard to live on it. I found work quickly enough in an upscale restaurant on Botanic Ave. Tips were better than at the pub, but only by a little. I decided to look into doing a university course, as I was not interested in pursuing a journalism career, which was my first degree. I decided upon archaeology and enrolled in Queens University for their master's program.
Pub culture is a much more daily part of life here. It's common for people to meet up in the pub during the week, have lunch there, and have a quick pint after work. Recently, stricter drunk driving laws, the smoking ban, and cheap supermarket alcohol have squeezed many local pubs, and the unthinkable has been happening nationwide. Pubs must diversify (one pub in Co. Kerry doubles as a local shop and post office), drop prices, bring live music, or face closure. Cafe culture is cautiously emerging on the scene and is prevalent in Belfast and Dublin rather than in more rural areas. Northern Ireland has an incredible amount of parks and amenities, thanks to the foresight of their Victorian ancestors, and Dublin has Phoenix Park, a remarkable green oasis in the middle of the city.
My children attend local state schools. The system is very different than that in the U.S., with exams featuring much more in secondary schools (high schools) than in the states. Primary (elementary) schools do not give letter-based grades to their pupils or a monthly report card. A parent-teacher meeting takes place once a year, and the children are assessed by subject on an "Excellent, Good, Poor, etc.." system on each subject at the end of the year, and a written report is sent home during the summer. Secondary schools (high schools) hold once-a-year parent-teacher meetings, and mini-exams are frequent throughout the year, with the results mailed to the student's home. Uniforms are standard in most schools, but not all. Most schools are faith-based, and entrance to a good school can be based on church attendance and membership. The Educate Together schools are a growing movement in the country which do not base admission on religious faith. Most schools do not have their cafeterias or free breakfast/lunch/dinner, and school based wrap-around child care is rare here. Expect to pay through the nose for childcare here.
If You Don't Ask, You Don't Get
Good deals can be had for accommodation, food, and shopping, much more so than when the economy boomed. It is worth bargaining for anything and everything in Ireland in these days of recession and penny-pinching. But no matter whether you are the best bargainer in the world, Ireland is still an expensive place to live, one of the most costly in Europe. The cost of living is lower in Northern Ireland, but salaries reflect this. Healthcare is free in Northern Ireland, which runs on the U.K.'s NHS principles. A half-free, half-paid insurance system runs in the Republic of Ireland and is usually assessed on income level and need.
Northern Ireland and Ireland
Work is much harder to come by than in the carefree days of the '90s. However, a thriving tech industry is on both sides of the border. Most jobs in Ireland are advertised online or by word of mouth. Six degrees of separation is more like one or two here, and I have found most work here by personal recommendation.
A common phrase in many conversations is, "Ah, sure, we just went mad for a few years, and we lost the run of ourselves." So even though everyone here is tightening their belts these days, Irish people on both sides of the border have lost none of the things that count: their sense of humor, patience, and the great courtesy that makes living here such a joy.
For More Information
Guide to common phrases:
What about ye? Or 'Bout ye? — Northern Irish for “How are you?”
craic — a general sense of fun or having a good time “going for the craic,” “the craic was mighty.”
wee — frequently used to describe pretty much everything that is the slightest bit small
Have one for yourself — if working in a pub, it does not mean having a drink with the customer; it means the customer wants you to take the price of a drink out of the money they are giving you and keep it for a tip.
Ulster or Irish fry — this is a cooked breakfast that consists of (but this varies regionally): baked beans, black pudding, white pudding, fried eggs, mushrooms, potato farls, soda bread, sausages, and bacon.
tea — (see main text) — a hot beverage, a meal, and slang for a tea time in which an early evening meal is served.
pudding — the word has various meanings, including the white and dark savory breakfast food (see above) and a general dessert term.
aubergine — eggplant.
courgette — zucchini.
crème fraiche — sour cream (or something close to it).
rounds — Irish people, when drinking, will usually take turns to buy everyone in the group a drink; if you don't want to be included in "buying a round," you need to make it clear at the beginning of the evening to avoid offending.
Mineral — fizzy cola.
Sparkling or still — what you will be asked if you order water — if you want tap water, you have to say "tap water," or you will automatically be given bottled water.
The consulate is the first port of call for any would-be traveler and can provide up-to-date information on all aspects of visa, passport, and emergency services for U.S. citizens. All times listed are local times.
U.S. Consulate Belfast
U.S. Embassy in Ireland
Both are great sites for upcoming events, accommodation, and special offers.
Welcome to Ireland
Welcome to Dublin
These are a few of the top universities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland but by no means an inclusive list.
Queens University, Belfast
one of Northern Ireland's premier universities, located on the south side of Belfast,
University of Ulster, Belfast
another top university, with four campuses throughout Northern Ireland,
Trinity College, Dublin
founded in 1592, Trinity has an international reputation for excellence,
University College, Cork
located in the heart of the city, UCC has a strong international student body,
Check with the consulate before traveling to determine what kind of visa you need if you plan to work. You do not need a visa at the time of publication if you are visiting strictly as a U.S. tourist.