Forgotten city.

Warning: major placename-dropping within. I can’t help it that both my parents work for airlines; wanderlust – and a serious dislike of staying in the same town for more than four weeks straight – is in my DNA.

Sometimes, you know – or think you know – what a new place is going to be like before you go there. Other times, you have no idea what to expect, so no matter what happens, it’s a valuable experience. I had high hopes about Cardiff, yet didn’t like the city as much as I thought I would. (That’s not the city’s fault, though, that’s the Masters’ fault.) I was excited for Paris, and Paris delivered, in exquisite style. Sydney and Hong Kong I had no preconceived ideas about; the former was pretty nice, while the latter was brilliant. Los Angeles is strange – for a city, it seems to have no “centre” – and New York is everything you think it’s going to be, but more. And Belfast? That little city across the water, that’s not exactly Irish in the twinkly-eyed, rambling-comedian way, and certainly not British? It has a piece of my heart I’m not getting back.

People looked at me like I was mad when I told them I was going to do a degree in English and Linguistics in Belfast. They were too polite to say, “you want your head looking at”, but I think they may have thought it. Countless conversations ran thus:

“So, you’re going over to Ireland, to do English? That… that makes no sense.”
“Haha, yeah”, I’d say. Inwardly, I’d be going, “Yes, but I’m going to a university, with actual lecturers and stuff. Not going over there to discuss Dickens with a local dairy farmer for three years, as you seem to be assuming.”

The older ones would mumble about the Troubles and I’d have vague recollections of the news in the early nineties, but I’d done [some of] the research – Queen’s University is part of the Russell Group, for a start – and was very keen to go on a plane to uni, so off to Belfast I went. Not knowing what to expect, except perhaps the occasional mildly-expressed anti-English sentiment, and a fair amount of drinking.

What I got, overall, was three years of happiness. Sure, there was a remarkable amount of rain; there were deadlines and boring lectures and intimidating tutors; there was an accent that manages to be welcoming, grating and incomprehensible – all at once. There was also the first year of halls, and all that that entailed (it’s awkward when you spend your entire A-level year trying not to get too hung up on one self-styled Casanova only to find the guy in the room next door to you is also a self-styled Casanova, only with a better smile and a nicer accent and a more innocent face. Don’t be fooled). There was “the time I went a bit mad in second year”, in, erm, second year. (You know you have anxiety issues when you manage to make yourself physically ill. Well done me.) But second year also brought a nice boy, and great friends, and a lot of fun. Third year was undoubtedly the best year; a nice (if bloody freezing) flat, a top-notch flatmate, a lot of drinking, a lot of misbehaving (I’d elaborate, but you’d be disappointed in me), and finally, graduation. For which Belfast broke tradition and let the sun shine – all day!

I hadn’t been back to Belfast since graduation until last weekend. In early January, my mother cornered me on the stairs in our house and said “What do you want for your birthday?” (She’s nothing if not organised to the point of insanity. And generous, as you shall see.) Without even having to think about it, I said, “I want to visit Belfast. I’ve been meaning to go back since I left, and I haven’t had the funds, so money towards flights would be great…”

Cut to last Friday, and I was off on what was to be the best weekend – and indeed the best birthday – I’ve had in a very, very long time. Aside from the 4.45am start. God, that hurt.

It felt like coming home. Even the boring stuff, like the bus journey from International Airport to the city centre, and nipping into the Tesco Express on the Dublin Road, and trying to get served in Madison’s before the cocktail prices went back up (failed that one, despite making the Boy queue for 15 minutes). It was a bit of a charmed weekend, it must be said – not only did I manage to meet up with all the people I wanted to, my mother treated the Boy and I to afternoon tea, and one glorious night of luxury, at the Merchant Hotel. Told you she was generous. And gloriously luxurious it was too:

But before we got there, we spent the Saturday at the Giant’s Causeway, so the Boy could take pictures of the distinctive rocks – ever the geologist – and we could wander along the cliffs, raving about the spectacular views:

It wasn’t an ideal time to remember I don’t like heights, but there’s nothing like fearing the wind might blow you over a cliff-edge to your certain death to make a birthday memorable. Northern Ireland seems to get forgotten about – goodness knows why, given its history – but that Antrim coastline is home to some beautiful scenery that makes you feel like you’re standing on the edge of the world. And Belfast itself is a great city, as I’ve said – it’s so much more than its past, but it’s also cool and busy and not too big, with great shopping opportunities and plenty of bars. And The Undertones recorded Teenage Kicks there (thank you, conveniently-timed Saturday Times feature on Belfast-based punk).

I’d move back in a heartbeat, if there were any jobs there (at this rate, I could try out for the NI tourist board, couldn’t I?) but moving to a smaller place probably isn’t the wisest decision in these economically-hopeless times. But after having the honour of being named “pretty much half-Northern-Irish now” bestowed on me by a friend, I’m just going to have to keep going back to visit. One day, I’ll have a second home there. Maybe a suite at the Merchant – now that would be good…

Original material from this lady for the first time in nearly three years; I for one am very excited.

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