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Here’s how the conversation at the customs desk went:
Officer: ‘What’s your reason for traveling to Northern Ireland?’
Me: ‘I’m here to study.’
Officer: ‘Do you have your wee temporary visa? You do? Grand. Enjoy!’
Less than a minute and I was cleared to live here for sixteen months.
No doubt, everyone’s experience here is different, but I’d like to mention a few things I’ve come to expect from this city.
It’s impossible to overstate this fact. In capital cities, I expect to encounter fast-paced, impatient people who haven’t got time to smile or say hello. This capital city is not like that. Even the taxi drivers are nice (usually). I’ve met train conductors who’ve let me ride for free, grocery store clerks who’ve given me recipe tips, baristas who’ve remembered both my name and drink order, passerby who’ve actually walked me to my destination when I’ve asked for directions. And people in Belfast like Americans. This may sound like a funny thing to mention, but I’ve been to some European cities (i.e. Paris) where the derision for America is so strong that I’d almost rather pretend to be Canadian.
In Belfast, however, this is a regular occurrence:
Stranger: ‘You’re not from here, sure you’re not.’
Me: ‘No, that’s true, well-spotted.’
Stranger: ‘Where are you from?’
Stranger: ‘I’ve got cousins in Boston/Philadelphia/Chicago!’
I participate in some form of this conversation on a weekly basis. It’s nice to live in a place where being American is perfectly acceptable.
Okay, you shouldn’t walk around alone at night, but that’s true for any city. In the year I’ve lived here, I’ve never once felt threatened or worried for my safety. Belfast’s crime rate is the lowest it’s been in twenty years. It’s ranked as the safest city in Northern Ireland, and listed in the top ten safest cities in the UK.
You might get more exercise than you’re used to, and you will probably also get caught in the rain more often than you’d like, but it’s entirely possible to live in Belfast without a car. In fact, it’s possible to live in Belfast without using public transit or even riding a bicycle. I’ve gotten quite a few steps in over the last year, but I’ve been able to walk everywhere I’ve needed to go in under two miles. That’s pretty rare for a capital city.
In fact, the city has one of the lowest costs of living in the entire world. On top of that, there are student discounts everywhere you look. To put this into perspective for you: I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. in one of the most expensive counties in America, but Belfast has taught me that paying more than £15 for a nice dinner out is a complete rip-off. The cost of my monthly rent and utilities is less than half of what I was paying in America, and I had one of the more affordable living situations back then. When you’re living in a foreign country, hoping to travel, and only working part-time, affordability is hugely important.
Lonely Planet ranked Belfast the number one travel destination of 2018, probably for all of the reasons I’ve just listed, among others. There are new restaurants opening in Belfast every week, over 100 festivals throughout the year, vibrant murals on every street corner, and forty-seven parks scattered throughout the small city. There are also regular tour buses that will take you up to the incredible North Coast or down to the striking Mourne Mountains. I meant to travel all around Europe while I was here, but instead, I’ve spent the majority of my time exploring Northern Ireland. There is so much beauty to see on this little island.
After only a year, I’m as at home in Belfast as I ever was in Virginia, thanks to the way the city’s welcomed me with warmth and friendliness. The weather might be a bit grey, but you can expect excellent tea, warm homes, and lovely company when you move here.