Carla Fette is from Bakum in North West Germany. She tells us about her experience of moving to Northern Ireland last year.
I have to be honest, Belfast had never really crossed my mind as a city I thought I’d want to live in. I was happy with my expat life in Dublin. I had moved there when I was 19 years old to study and there was never really any reason for me to consider moving anywhere else.
But then came a day in August of last year, my dreams of going home to Germany to do my postgraduate degree shattered over a formal error I had made in my application. I was left a bit disillusioned and disappointed at the prospect of another year in a job that was ok, but did not bring me much joy or fulfilment.
The day of my seven–year anniversary of living in Ireland was approaching. I was at lunch with an old friend from college, Jennifer, my classmate and friend in UCD for four years, when she told me: “I think I might be moving to Belfast to do a Masters in Translation!”
I’m not sure who was more surprised to hear that sentence – her, because it was only decided very recently, or me. Because – Belfast? Isn’t that really far away and… dangerous?
We laughed it off, making jokes about it – sure, what could be worse than Dublin?
But that day I went home and did some research. The closing date for applications hadn’t passed yet, and the degree was at Queen’s University. Even better: It was cheaper than Dublin. Not just the degree, but the cost of living in general. Dublin by that time had turned into a real hell–hole in those terms – even for somebody on a decent full–time wage.
At that point, there was not much I knew about Belfast or Northern Ireland. Except that I really liked it the last time I visited – I remembered St. George’s Market, the black cab tour, the murals, the Giant’s Causeway and the coastal route we took that day in the blazing sunshine.
I also remembered the slight differences to things that were so familiar to me after seven years in the Fair City – the accent was, for a second–language speaker like me, basically incomprehensible.
I soon realised that it’s made up by the phrases and sayings the people in Belfast integrate into their speech. Everything is ‘wee’, you’re still everybody’s ‘love’ or ‘darling’ and the Dublinese, near–Americanized ‘yeah’ turns into a sturdy ‘Aye’.
It always reminded me of the stories we heard as children about sailors and pirates who ventured out to sea for years on end. Being a ‘Nordie’ from Germany myself, we grew up just an hour’s drive away from the North Sea and enjoyed weekend trips to cities like Bremen and Hamburg which are famous for their ports and the immense ships that would dock there. I loved it.
Fast forward to November of last year. After a couple of haunting experiences while house hunting in the infamous Holylands, I came across a lovely house just off the Ormeau Road. The rent was about a third of what I paid in Dublin, the house was spacious and in a great area, and my housemates made me feel welcome immediately.
Here’s another thing that’s the same both sides of the border: the hospitality and the friendly, welcoming mentality of the people. Never have I felt more like I landed on my feet than when I arrived in Belfast. My housemates were quick in introducing me to their friends, showed me places to go out to on the weekends (can’t beat Lavery’s or Filthy’s on a Saturday night!) and even helped me find a part–time job to keep me above the water. Within two weeks, I was sorted.
Despite some personal problems I encountered during this tumultuous year, I never felt more as part of a small community than here in Belfast. I still get funny looks when people hear my Dublin–German accent and try to figure out where exactly I’m from “Down South” (this will never get old), and there are still moments where I struggle to get used to the different accents (deciphering a drunk customer’s rambling of “Paars!!” as an order for a whiskey was a real moment of success!), but I can say I really like it here.
Now, walking down the Ormeau Road, I bump into at least one familiar face from the pub I work in, or somebody who knows me simply as “the German girl” that goes everywhere on her old, rusty bike with the basket in the front. After just 9 months, I feel quite settled.
Studying at Queens
The weekend job in the bar is a great contrast to the academic work I do in college during the week. Queen’s has turned out to be a great choice for my postgrad, with its resources, excellent study opportunities, helpful lecturers and modern study halls. The course is organised rather liberally, so we can organise our time and research ourselves. This suits me as I had the opportunity to accept jobs as a freelance translator on the side.
There were many memorable moments at Queen’s. The most memorable is probably a story our lecturer (who was born and bred in Belfast) told us: When he was a student at Queen’s in the 70’s, he had to go up the old library tower one day. As he walked back down the stairs, he looked out the window and saw a bomb go off on the nearby Dublin Road. He remembers feeling the floor and the walls shaking and seeing the fear and distress in people’s faces.
Other stories I have been told over the past few months have made me realise what a different place Belfast was, 30, 20, even 10 years ago. It is hard to imagine it now, when I take a stroll through the town centre, or go for a drink with friends in the Cathedral Quarter. While the stories are hard to imagine in this day and age, they are also difficult to forget.
Visitors from home
Friends and family have not missed the chance to come and visit from Germany, and they all loved it. Whether it was a road trip on a (luckily) sunny day down to Newcastle and Carlingford, trips to the Titanic museum (the Germans are still in love with that movie) or a good old–fashioned pub crawl.
The tourism industry in Belfast is booming and there is something to do for everybody. Everyone who’s been here said they will definitely be back.
Now – Post–Brexit
After the Brexit vote, it would be a little dramatic to call my status “uncertain”, but I do wonder what changes it will bring with it. As a child born in the year the Cold War ended, who has never been confronted with border controls and visa applications when travelling around the continent, I find it difficult to imagine that this would somehow drastically change. Who knows – the island might be reunited after all and I might be a resident of the Republic once more?
In November, I will graduate from Queen’s and celebrate my one–year anniversary in Belfast. It’s crazy how much your life can change in a year. But it is also encouraging at the same time, if you find yourself in a good place, surrounded by good people.
If you have a connection with Northern Ireland and would like to share your story then we’d love to hear from you. Just get in contact via our social media channels or email: email@example.com