As my previous experience in Europe was limited to a nine-hour layover in London’s Heathrow Airport, I really had no idea what to expect from Belfast, Ireland, and Europe in general. While the airport was very nice, I was fairly confident that Europe had much more to offer. Though I’ve only been here a little over a month, I’ve not been disappointed.
Moving always involves a fair amount of chaos. My move to Belfast was no exception. Everything here seems at least slightly different — purchasing a cell phone that I primarily use to send text messages, returning to life as a graduate student after a two-year hiatus from school, and adjusting to a new academic system — definitely involved a learning process. As of late, however, I have settled in and Belfast actually feels likes home.
Belfast is a fascinating, paradoxical place. I was struck by the city’s vibrancy. Belfast has a great bar and music scene. In my relatively short time here, I’ve heard everything from indie rock bands in modern concert venues to traditional Irish music in centuries old pubs. The city appears to be changing rapidly from the linger stereotype that raised more than a few eyebrows to the city that routinely shows up in the travel pages of major American newspapers. At the same time, it is clear that Belfast is still in the process of emerging into normality. Just a short walk from the university or city center, visible signs of the conflict remain and the possibility of violence continues to be a very real part of everyday life in some parts of the city.
Moreover, Northern Ireland seems to be in a strange state of ‘inbetweenness’ as the people don’t seem to fit entirely with either culture. This is not intended as a criticism, but rather that Northern Ireland seems to be a unique place despite strong cultural connections to both Ireland and the United Kingdom. At the same, I don’t know where they are headed as there obviously remain major barriers to a unified Northern Irish cultural identity. Of course, this is just my initial, inevitably incomplete, snapshot of the situation.
The Mitchell orientation in Dublin was another major highlight. I sampled the best Guinness that I have ever drunk (and sadly perhaps ever will) at the Gravity Bar, while meeting a diverse cross-section of Irish society. My time with the other Mitchells was equally amazing. I will never forget the day-long hike filled with sparkling conversation, at least 150 weather changes, and strikingly beautiful scenes seemingly cut directly out of the sort of “Natural Beauty of Ireland Calendar” that I would (and probably will) buy for my grandmother; Mike’s duet of a classic Bruce Springsteen song with local bar singer; and bonding over fine cuisine at Super Macs after a night of revelry. Another highlight has been travelling to visit other Mitchells throughout the island. So far, I’ve visited both Dublin and Derry twice with trips to Galway and London planned in the next few weeks. In addition, with the aid of USIT’s generous travel stipend, I am busy planning a series of trips over the holiday season. Overall, it has been an amazing month to say the least.