An Intimate View of Northern Ireland

It’s hard to move somewhere new no matter what. Add in an unprecedented global pandemic, and the task of moving to a new continent for a year can sometimes feel like an impossible task. But out of those moments of self-doubt, of discomfort, of ambivalence, I’ve found you can create experiences that make all those feelings worth it.

For the recent past and the foreseeable future, a fourteen-day period seems to have overtaken the seven day week as the appropriate marker of time. The first day I was legally permitted to leave my apartment – it rained in typical Belfast fashion, going back and forth from sunny to pouring multiple times in the same hour. Walking down the street, I laughed to myself at how oddly lifelike the passing pedestrians were compared to the characters on Netflix I had spent my isolation with. I know the analogy about an alien on a foreign planet is overused, but returning back to the public from solitude – and in-turn entering a completely new society – was an experience and feeling I didn’t expect to be so captured by.

There is no doubt that COVID has transformed Belfast. Given the economic uncertainty associated with the pandemic – which is exacerbated by the continued short-term lockdowns being used to manage the spread of the virus – many cultural institutions and businesses in Belfast have been forced to shutter. From the closing of concert halls to restaurants to the all-important pub scene, it’s become more difficult to fully immerse yourself in the culture of Belfast and Northern Ireland. Throughout this year, it will be challenging to engage culturally with Belfast as easily as I had once hoped, but the uncertainty of the next few months will reveal new opportunities.

Although COVID has created many hardships, it has also created once-in-a-lifetime experiences for a long-term visitor like me. Given the inability of tourists to travel to Northern Ireland, those who are here now have free reign over usually packed tourist destinations. My first Saturday out of isolation, I was amazed to be one of a handful of people walking through the Titanic Quarter, and could easily enjoy the outdoor exhibits of Titanic Belfast (one of the most visited museums in all of Europe) without even coming within shouting distance of another person.

The next weekend, I rented a car to drive up the north coast of Ireland to Giant’s Causeway and Dunluce Castle, two attractions that average almost one million visitors in a single year. To my surprise and enjoyment, I spent nearly an hour on the rocks of the Causeway without another person in the entire park. It was a surreal experience and provided an intimacy with one of the great wonders of the natural world that few will ever be able to claim.

There’s no doubt that COVID has turned the world upside-down, and changes what it’s like to study in a new place. But out of those challenges, unprecedented opportunities for deep engagement still exist. You just need to be willing to seek them out.

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