A new year starts and, as most of my ESR fellows, I have spent for the first time a full year abroad. So instead of talking about science related matters, I want to use this blog to talk a bit more about my host country for the last 18 months. Formally part of the United Kingdom and culturally very related to the Republic of Ireland, Belfast (and Northern Ireland) offers loads of possibilities, starting for the passport choice for everyone who’s been born here. It seems a minor thing but it’s not very common anywhere else to be given the chance to apply for two different passports with no requisites whatsoever. As a result, a very interesting and mixed culture is observed along Northern Ireland. And so many things as well that have nothing to do with either UK or Ireland, as a very particular and distinctive accent that most foreigners struggle with during the first months after arriving here. Especially now that I’m back in Belfast after a Christmas break at home, I feel that I could write an entire book about small particularities that anyone deciding to move to Belfast would find. Of course this funny/weird/interesting aspects I’m going to talk about might not seem weird to you depending on your country of origin, but any Spanish person would be surprised about them.
So let’s start with the accommodation. Forget about 12 stage buildings with flats, you will not find that in Belfast. Instead, 3-4 stage houses are common here, as it is in some other countries in northern Europe. They can sometimes be split up in 3-4 apartments but they’re usually meant to be single family houses. Despite being used to cities with lots of big buildings where people live, I have to accept that I like the way houses are here, as it gives to the city a more natural touch. However, you’ll have to deal with carpets everywhere and the lack of blinds, shutters or anything to avoid lights coming in through your window while you sleep. Pros and cons depending on what you are used to, I assume. Plus, countless small differences are waiting for you inside your house, funny and insignificant once you are used to them, but annoying when you see them for the first time and you realise that you don’t know how to switch on the shower, or charge the electricity. The first thing you’ll notice is the differences in the plugs and sockets, so you’ll need to be ready with an adaptor. Moreover, sooner or later you’ll run out of electricity and is then that you find out that you are not getting a bill at the end of the month and paying for what you used, instead you’ll have to charge money in a small machine as if it was the mobile balance. Interestingly, the gas works exactly the same way, with the particularity that it cannot be charged online. So sometimes you’ll have to run to the shop before it closes if you don’t want to spend a cold winter night with no heating. Everything else is something that you can deal with more easily: switches for plugs, ropes that have to be pulled to switch on the shower, no sockets in the bathroom or separated faucets for cold and hot water. As I said, small cultural differences that will keep you entertained the first days.
These differences, however, are not limited to what’s inside your house, but you’ll also find them outside. Despite a long history of religious conflicts in Northern Ireland, music seems to be the main religion in the streets. And also in the pubs. This is probably the difference I like the most, no matter where you go or which day of the week it is, you are likely to find a band playing music inside the pub. This was definitely an easy thing to get used to. However, if you want to get a taxi to come back home, you’ll need to know that most of them are not going to stop wherever you are, instead you’ll have to book a taxi on the phone and specify where you want to be picked up or go to a taxi stop and queue up. It doesn’t matter you spotted a free taxi, that’s not how it works here. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Regarding the money, you’ll have to get used to a different currency, the pound sterling. Not a big deal once you get used to them and start to recognize the coins. However, it is quite curious that apart from the Bank of England, there are seven other retail banks that have the right to print their own banknotes (3 in Scotland and 4 in Northern Ireland). To make it more complicated, each bank will decide the colour and design for their own notes, can you imagine having 8 totally different £5 notes? So yes, as you can guess it becomes a bit messy until you have seen them all a few times and got used to them, especially when you are getting the change after buying something and you get random notes that you can’t recognize quickly. The confusion it generates is such that even other British citizens might refuse a note from Northern Ireland if they don’t know it well. This happened to me both in England and Scotland, when I tried to pay with a Northern Irish note and it only got accepted after me getting an inquisitive look and the note being exhaustively inspected. But the worst part arrives when you try to change this money outside the UK. There is nothing you can do there. I found it out when I arrived in Prague to attend the RAFA Conference 2017. I had decided to bring some money with me and change it to Czech Crowns in the airport, which probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do as I was told that they didn’t accept that money “only English or Scottish notes” is all I got from him. Despite this funny fact and the 2 weeks it took me to open a bank account in here due to the numerous requisites needed, I have no more complains about the British banks, which don’t charge you with commissions for every money movement you make, as the Spanish banks do…
If we talk about the weather, we all know this part of the map is characterized by its rain. More than proper rain, usually it is a continuous drizzle. Unless your plan is to spend the whole day walking in the country, the rain is not a problem once you get used to it. The same applies for the temperature. Belfast is a cold city, but it barely is extremely cold. To put this in context, my hometown Zaragoza (in the land of sun) was colder this Christmas than anywhere in Northern Ireland. So I kind of had a warm feeling when I returned to Belfast. However, the cold stays in Belfast for much longer, being a constant except for the few days (maybe weeks!) of heat and sun that we get in summer if we are lucky. This is why, as many people say, it is very easy to get used to Belfast’s weather.
Other thing that may make you feel weird is the fact of driving on the left. As I said in previous blogs, even if you don’t drive a car, you’ll still need to get used to looking to the right side when crossing a street on foot. Or to seeing a dog in the “driver seat”, or a person texting on the phone or reading a book while driving the car.
I could go on and on for pages: people here love rugby and play very little basketball, you can find Guinness everywhere but it is not that easy to find a good sangría, you can find a pool in most bars but not a dartboard (despite I thought darts was a popular game in the UK, I still haven’t seen a single board in Northern Ireland!).
To sum up, when you move somewhere else you’re going to find as many particularities or differences as you want, which I’ve always thought is good to open your mind and question many ideas that were facts to you until someone proves you it can be done other way. And this is what, not only a PhD, but everything is about.
Hope this blog moved your adventurous spirit and looking forward to hearing your stories from all around 🙂