Students atop the roof of the Northern Ireland office's building.  Image by the author.

When you live in a place and write about it too, it can be easy to focus on the problems like potholes, confusing parking signs, and bike lanes that end abruptly. It’s easy to forget about the little things that make your city loveable. I recently helped host a group of students from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and I really enjoyed seeing the District from their perspective.

I’m a professor at American University, and this May eight students from Queens University Belfast came to take a class I teach called Conflict Transformation. After two weeks here, they returned to Northern Ireland with eight students from American.

While the Queens students were here, I was able to see DC from their perspective. That made me question things I take for granted about the District.

Visiting students liked the Metro

Complaining about Metro is standard fare for Washington area residents, but the Queens students were mostly impressed by it. We had four off-campus meetings during the course’s first two weeks, and we used Metro to get to all of them. The students were given pre-paid Metro cards, and they found them easy to use and refill. Despite ongoing SafeTrack repair work, we did not encounter any delays getting to our meetings. In fact, I budgeted much more time than we needed to arrive to meetings on time.

Students outside of the US Institute of Peace.

The one thing that gave some students pause was the depth and relative darkness of the stations. One student described DC’s metro stations as “grey, dark, and uninviting,” and said that going down the escalators at the Tenleytown station made her feel like she was “going down to the center of the earth.”

On the whole, though, the Queens students liked it. In fact, when some of them returned from a weekend strip to New York, they told me that our Metro is much nicer than New York’s subway. It also smells a lot better. I imagine a lot of residents here would agree with them, but it’s easy to forget all of this when you’re counting the days until SafeTrack is done.

They also loved the green space and the food

Students also liked how green DC is. Most movies about DC show the federal parts of the city—the brutalist buildings, K Street, close ups of the monuments. But staying in an AU dorm in leafy upper Northwest DC opened their eyes to a part of DC they’d never seen on TV.

As one student put it, “It’s actually quite livable.” Another said, “It doesn’t look like it does in the movies.”

Students also liked the foods you can get from all over the world here. For their last night in DC we took the students to Cactus Cantina. I love Cactus Cantina—best salsa in the District—but I also take it for granted. I’ve been eating Mexican food since I was in high school. At this point, Mexican food is typical American food to me. When I chose the restaurant, it was mostly because it was within walking distance of AU.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Queens students were actually excited about my choice. “I’m so glad you chose this place!” one of them told me. I was reminded that what constitutes ethnic food depends on where your country’s immigrants come from. In the UK, contemporary migrant streams (1950 onwards) have come from the Caribbean, India, and, more recently, North Africa. So if you hail from Belfast, Mexican food is a novelty.

The students didn’t expect so much security

Students were generally surprised at the level of security in federal buildings. When we visited the State Department, for example, we were asked to arrive an hour earlier because it would take that long to get 24 students through security. The estimate wasn’t off. Indeed, we had to traverse two layers of security to get to our meeting. The first entailed getting into the building—putting bags through an x-ray scanner and walking through a metal detector. Once inside, we had to go through a second round. Every student was issued a name tag and then escorted, in groups of ten, to our meeting room. When we decided to have lunch in the State Department cafeteria, we were also required to have “minders” who would escort us there, stay with us while we ate, and then take us to the exit.

Students in the State Department lobby.

The Queens students’ reaction to the security initially surprised me. They were born in a conflict zone. During Northern Ireland’s Troubles, government installations, hotels, and pubs were frequently bombed. Belfast’s Europa hotel, for example, was bombed 33 times by the IRA in a span of 24 years. Yet here we were, in DC, facing more security than students from a post-conflict zone were accustomed to. It brought home for me just how fortress-like federal DC has become. It also made me remember that it was not always like this, even a decade and a half ago.

They also didn’t expect DC’s racial divide

Students noticed that most of the American students they encountered on AU’s campus were white, while the people they interacted with in the student cafeteria or from the janitorial service were black or Latino. They saw the same pattern at the fast food restaurants they frequented near campus and at coffee shops and cafeterias they went to downtown.

Students from Belfast are, of course, used to trenchant social divides. Protestants and Catholic tend to go to separate schools, and residential mixing is not common. However, in Belfast, the divides aren’t visible so much as received. That is, you grow up learning where each group lives in the city and what common Catholic and Protestant last names are. It surprised the students to see the divides.

As one of the course’s conveners put it, “we hear about race in the US, but you don’t really appreciate how blatant the racial divide is until you see it first-hand.”

They did miss tea and pubs

The Queens students did not have much negative to say about their time in DC. “The entire trip was an amazing experience,” one student told me. But a few things did strike them as odd.

The first was how difficult it was to make yourself a good cup of tea. Tea is ubiquitous in Northern Ireland. As a result, so are electric kettles. When the Queens students arrived to the AU dorm on their first night they were surprised there were no tea kettles around. My meek explanation the next morning—that you can get tea at a coffee shopmorning— probably added insult to injury.

Students also wondered where the pubs in DC were. DC has plenty of bars, of course, but pubs are different from bars. Pubs are near residential areas. You don’t have to dress up to go to one, and you’re as likely to see someone your parents’ age in a pub as twenty-somethings. There really aren’t many places like that in DC.

The students are now in Belfast. I wonder what the American students will think of it? And, what it will make them look at in DC with fresh eyes?

Carolyn Gallaher is a geographer and associate professor at American University.  Her research interests include gentrification in DC, the emergence of “ethnoburbs” in Maryland and Virginia, payday lending, and tenant empowerment.  Previously, she studied the militia movement in the US and Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.  She lives in Silver Spring with her husband and son.