It tends to be mostly a middle-class phenomenon. Working-class people tend to leave it and get on with things. But there is a repertoire of questions that people put to me when normal small talk turns to the question of “Where are you from?” I can’t tell you why, but the questions rarely feel friendly in intention—do you know the feeling?
“How are you coping with our Irish weather?”
Not too badly, thank you very much. The summers are atrocious, I will give you that, but I would like to remind you that I am from San Francisco. This is the city about which Mark Twain once remarked, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”
“You must find it awfully cold here.”
Not only am I from San Francisco, but I lived for many years in Boston and New Haven, Connecticut. A warm winter day on the East Coast is 0 celsius. What I miss is the first blizzard of winter, the quiet that falls on the city, the fresh piles of fluffy snow that cover the asphalt and city parks. We’re lucky if the Black Mountains get a white dusting.
“Bet it doesn’t rain this much in California.”
You might be right, it does rain more here. But again, you might get two months straight of heavy rainfall in Northern California. Do yourself a favour and Google “Guernville floods.” Guernville is a small town about 15 miles from where I grew up notorious for its ever-flooding Russian River.
“Why did you move here?”
Because I think Belfast is one of the most interesting and exciting cities in the world and it matches my own personality and temperament: a little messed up but determined to get it right. I fell in love with it as a teenager and would spend hours imagining what life must have been like for my grandfather growing up in Ballymurphy and then Balmoral. Now I live around the corner from the Erigle in South Belfast, and couldn’t be happier.
“Do you miss the warm weather in California?”
Are we back to weather again?
“Are you just someone that likes languages?”
No, I feel a deep personal relationship with the Irish language, as do many Americans with family from Ireland. In California we grow up with Spanish at school, but a few years back I decided to learn Irish. When I was told Protestants don’t learn Irish (by Catholic Irish Americans), I committed myself to reaching fluency. I’ve spent three summers in the Gaeltacht and many nights at Irish language events here in Belfast. In general, I find the Irish-language world inclusive and quirky, full of extraordinary people and beautiful places.
“You must think our politics are very strange”
No, I think they are personal, engaging, and participatory. Many Americans envy the parliamentary system of British and Irish politics. Here in Northern Ireland, there may be as many as nine parties represented in the next Assembly (DUP, UUP, SDLP, Sinn Féin, Alliance, Green, TUV, UKIP, Conservative). Besides the occasional independent, we have two choices in the States. I’ve flirted with three parties since moving here. Not sure where I will end up.
“Can you understand what I am saying?”
Oh, ay. Belfast accents are easy. It’s Jamaicans and Glasweigans that lead me to my limits of comprehension.
“Do you know any celebrities?”
A friend of mine dated a girl who once went out with Ryan Adams. And when I was a student at Yale James Franco had just begun his Phd in English Literature. I met neither.
“Your accent is class, I love the way you talk.”
Thank you, and I love the way you talk, we should celebrate dialects and accents together over pints.
“So seriously, Belfast?”
Yeah, seriously. Best education system in the world, excited to raise kids here. Four to six weeks of paid holiday a year (unheard of in America). Affordable housing. Free world-class health care. And the people are, for the most part, dead on. I love it here.