How is life in Belfast

Handelsblatt, supplement Perspektiven, "Ortswechsel", July 3, 2009

Live and work in Belfast.
Northern Ireland's capital in upheaval: a decade after the civil war, people are reluctant to open up to foreigners.

No feeling of security.
The building boom brought the architect Marcin Otulak to Belfast. After the collapse of the job market in the construction industry, he is thinking of returning to Germany.

From the architecture office in which Marcin Otulak worked for three years, he looks out over the main Anglican church in Belfast and the mountains beyond. "The surroundings are beautiful," enthuses the 34-year-old. Along the north coast there are wild landscapes: bizarre rock formations, the rough ocean; Grass and moss landscapes, few trees, many sheep. Because of the changing weather and bad roads, Otulak has switched from inline skating to hiking in his spare time. "The last few summers were so rainy that I often said to myself: I can't stay here."

Otulak has just found out that he has been released. "The job market for architects collapsed within six months," he says. "Layoffs or wage cuts are the order of the day." Otulak was born in Warsaw and grew up in the Rhineland. After studying in Aachen and Krakow, he and his Polish girlfriend were looking for a place to live together. In Poland they would have earned too little, the German job market was closed to the friend from Eastern Europe. The construction industry was booming in Northern Ireland. Three job interviews brought Otulak three offers. He didn't particularly like Belfast's industrial cityscape, "but around 20 percent of the center was advertised for redesign, the visions of the planners and the upcoming projects encouraged me to come here."

Otulak helped build apartments, hotels and a covered shopping area. He finds the Northern Irish very friendly, but superficial. "They often only know their country and have a limited view." He lives close to the center in a settlement with almost identical rows of brick houses. "Crime is a problem," he says. "You quickly learn which street you are not allowed to go into. A German friend was pelted with bottles because of his accent. There are constant break-ins, in broad daylight my car radio was stolen." Still, the situation is not comparable to that before the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland and attracted investors and immigrants to the country. But with the pound falling, Northern Ireland is no longer so interesting. "In the meantime I would easily earn more in Germany."

The linguist Christiane Ulbrich found ideal research conditions in Belfast. In her private life, however, she has little to do with Northern Ireland. Their demarcation makes you create.

When Christiane Ulbrich moved to Belfast, the city was secondary to her. For the East Berlin resident, who last lived in Montreal, the return to Europe and her work were more important. Her permanent position at the University of Ulster gives the PhD Phonetician enough time and planning security for her research in addition to teaching.

The 34-year-old has lived in the Northern Irish port city for four years and admits: "For the first two years I just wanted to leave. It is very difficult to get into the established, family-oriented circles." In bars or coffee shops you immediately start a conversation, the people are often extremely warm - but you don't meet up. During the Troubles, that is, the time of the unrest, "one cultivated deeper social relationships with only a few confidants for decades," she explains. "I've never seen so much isolation anywhere." She doesn't like going to bars herself, which limits opportunities to meet people. Your friends, almost all of them foreigners, are mostly colleagues or training partners from the gym

On the other hand, the people in Belfast are very interested in promoting life culturally, touristically and economically. Museums and galleries are opened, there are festivals all year round and the music scene is entirely to Ulbrich's taste: "Every evening Irish folk music, spontaneous sessions, every day really good bands from Britrock to jazz". In the last three years Ulbrich has seen a lot more foreigners on the streets and at the university. "So far, the university has mainly employed people who have studied here, completed their doctorate here and slipped into a job," she says.

A year and a half ago, the German decided to accept Belfast as a temporary home and bought a house. Since property prices were high, she could only afford one in the Catholic-Protestant border area. "But nobody has ever done anything to me," she says. When the weather permits, she drives to the Atlantic on her motorcycle. "Northern Ireland is one of the most scenic places in the world," she enthuses. "The city is on the Irish Sea, within 20 minutes you can get to white beaches and green hills. And the Atlantic on the other side of the island always looks different and overwhelming."

© Jeannette Villachica