For the purposes of writing this I had intended to walk all the way downstairs, knock on his door, and ask the gentleman who lives in the flat below mine what he was doing in Belfast. ‘What are you doing in Belfast?’ I was going to demand. And then, such is my commitment to research, I was going to listen to his answer.
I believe my neighbour to be more usually resident in a university town on the east coast of the United States of America. Before he moved in a Czech girl shared these rooms with two large Northern Irish men, and, at the same time, an Indian couple and their family occupied the ground floor. According to the scale I’ve been given, all these – with the exception, of course, of the two Northern Irish men – are ‘foreign foreigners’, which are undoubtedly the best kind, giving the building an attractive air of cosmopolitan glamour. Foreign foreigners are fantastic; but motive is important. Belfast seems all the more plausible for other people fancying a trip here, and better still if they’re re-locating altogether because they once visited a friend and fell in love with the place (which does, in fact, happen). It seems less so if the purpose of their stay is Belfast-as-subject/ Belfast-as-shithole. Anyway, this was my logic in harassing the man downstairs, who is, I think, conducting some kind of field work. The family man from the ground floor, on the other hand, was working for a couple of years as an electronic engineer, and the Czech girl’s motives for being here were occasionally audible through the floorboards – though I think she was also a student. Students, the freaks, it has recently been reported, are attracted to Belfast because of its ‘24 hour party culture’ (untrue) and ‘bloody past’ (all wrong).
Obviously some ‘foreign foreigners’ – like the Kosovan who has two degrees and washes dishes in a local restaurant – are here in order to escape other, more desperate situations. To a lesser extent this is often the case with “intermediate foreigners”, the mystery of whose presence in Belfast is cleared up when they reveal themselves to be originally from Nottingham or Dundee. Not atypically, perhaps, a friend’s boyfriend, who worked for the Northern Irish civil service for four years, was from Stoke – though (more unusually) he came via Dublin and (less unusually) went back there. In a way intermediate foreigners are even better than foreign foreigners – not just because of the element of choice or the fact that they’re more likely to he in it for the long haul – but simply because there are more of them. In this way it is possible, with a little planning, to surround yourself with a core group of intermediate foreigners. One of the advantages of this is that, if you are a “local foreigner”, you can remain oblivious your entire life to the fact that those indigenous to Belfast (apparently) consider themselves superior to you. At least until someone makes a joke about you being ‘not even from the Sticks but from just outside the Sticks’ and it all falls into place.
I did not, in the end, ask the American man who lives downstairs from me what he was doing in Belfast since (sound travelling both ways between our flats) I feel he already considers me sinister – though it’s possible that cultural differences are responsible for him so audibly locking his door from the inside whenever he hears me in the hall, like I’m just going to walk in there and sit down. Instead I asked the intermediate foreigner who lives in my flat what he was doing in Belfast. At first he just looked at me funny, and then he allowed me to record these impressions:
Some of the countryside around Northern Ireland is alright ‘he supposes’.
Belfast is much, much worse than he expected it to be before he moved here.
Robert McLiam Wilson was right in Eureka Street about Northern Irish women being better looking than the men ‘but sometimes in a kind of slutty way’.
The best things about Northern Ireland are Club Orange, the plastic Northern Bank fiver with the rocket and transparent star on it, soda bread and the word ‘millbag’.