When I moved to Belfast from London, I knew exactly nobody here.
Actually that isn’t entirely true: as I visited Belfast for the odd house-hunting weekend, a few lovely people came my way - care of happy serendipity - and quickly progressed from passing acquaintances to firm friends, by the time my feet and things were no longer “in transit.”
It’s true I didn’t know exactly what I was going to, when I accepted a role in a city I did not know, but my reasons for leaving London couldn’t have been clearer: I’d reached a point, in the back end of my thirties, where I’d grown tired of it. My social life was unsatisfying and dwindling and I couldn’t think of enough reasons to live so recklessly beyond my means just to cover a mortgage. Friends were moving out or moving on, having kids, getting married or travelling such odysseys each week to get to work, they were flat-out exhausted (and far away) by the weekend. And, although it was hard to acknowledge at the time, my job was also making me unhappy and, it turns out, more importantly, making me sick. It was time to ring in the changes (as if change itself wasn’t actually life’s raison d’etre).
It was a new job that bought me to Belfast initially - a 2 year contract with a big London company – it wasn’t a step up or a step down but a sideways move which felt like a step in the right direction. When I found out I got the job, the first person I called was not family or a close friend but a man named Colin, who was a Northern Irish acquaintance I’d made a year before. As it happened, he’d just landed a job which was taking him to Buenos Aires so I wasn’t the only one with travel on my mind. I called him up and said “Guess where I’m going?” and shouted “Belfast!” because I was too excited to let him work it out for himself. I’ve never forgotten his exact response. Even before a “well done” or “that’s good news” he said “You will find home there.” In those words. I remember glowing with pleasure as he said it.
The next few months went by at a giddy pace. I felt as if I’d been given my own personal Get Out Of Jail Free card and nothing could touch me. I was no longer bothered by the push of commuters at rush hour or the constant snarl of traffic outside my window. Not even my former boss who, on hearing my news, told me he wasn’t going to renew my contract anyway could bring me down. When the last thing he said to me on the matter, before settling into a cold shoulder routine (which lasted the rest of my employment term), was a petulant “But you don’t even know anybody in Belfast!” I thought: but I will.
So there I was, one massively ordinary weekday in the middle of August 2009, checking in at the airport with my hand luggage (two sizes too big) and a suitcase (two sizes too small). “I am moving to another country today” I huffed by way of an explanation at The Check-In Man as I struggled to heave the burgeoning fabric case onto the check-in belt. The Check In Man smiled and wished me luck - and waivered the fee my overweight bag demanded for good measure. I took it all as A Sign.
Now, you’d think for someone who was well-versed in writing a blog, I might’ve written about my move by now. I’ve been here seven years this summer, after all. Surely I have something to say about the country I have found myself in? About the little idiosyncrasies that make here, here vs there, there? About the little eateries I’ve discovered? The bars I’ve drunk in (and got drunk in)? The people I’ve met? The hideaways I’ve unhidden? The understandings I’ve hilariously misconstrued? The friends I’ve formed? The life I’ve built? But I didn’t. And I haven’t. I can’t say for sure why. I think because I’ve been too busy…experiencing it.
I don’t expect Northern Ireland is everybody’s cup of tea…and it's not for me to change anybody's mind. But my experience has been a blind date turned full-blown affair. I fell in love with my tiny arts-and-crafts, turn-of-the-century house in the middle of the city with its pretty pitched roof, stained glass and Victorian tiled path. I fell in love with the soft rain and the eye-contact and the unexpected friendliness of strangers and neighbours, on buses and over partition fences. I fell in love with the countryside and the way the weather and light whips and changes in the blink of an eye. I fell in love with the warmth and innate wryness of those who live here and have lived. And survived. And thrive against some extraordinary odds. And when I fell in love literally, it was this life I wanted him to see and share. And together we fell in love with a rural existence, and for a ramshackle cottage near the sea. And we made a home and gave that home to a cat and then another cat and then a dog and then one more.
Life isn’t perfect here (Is it anywhere?), the ups and down continue apace: the weather is reliably unreliable; the politicians reliably regressive; friends come - and, sadly, friends go; my Crohns flares up and it abates; work is satisfying and unsatisfying; and for reasons, I still can’t fathom, it’s too damn hard to find a crusty loaf of bread or an honest-to-goodness gastro pub. But the countryside makes my heart sing, the mountains make my soul soar and the beaches so expansive, so glistening, so…empty...unfurl my shoulders. I can breathe.
There was a time I couldn’t breathe. Not without a paper bag and counting to ten.
I never did get the chance to tell Colin he was right.
I guess this is my postcard, long in the making, to those who once read this blog. It doesn’t say Wish You Were Here. Instead it says: I Hope You Find Your Own Here To Wish Upon, Wherever That Here May Be.