When packing to head off to Belfast for a year, I was wracked by many of the same anxieties that beset me when I went off to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill years before. What if I couldn’t find my people? What if my professors weren’t interested in the questions I cared about? What if no one wanted to head out into the mountains for days at a time? Perhaps, most importantly, what if there were no cozy coffee shops to hole up in and work away the afternoon? Sitting in the Newark Airport, waiting for my plane to depart, I couldn’t envision what my daily life would look like in Belfast. And that scared me. I knew that I would find adventures, new experiences and new friends, but would I be able to make Belfast feel like a home?
The questions continued to occupy me through my first few weeks in Northern Ireland. At orientation, I worried over my conversations with new students from Belfast and around the world, hoping to parse out the people who would become my partners in crime for the next year (and, if what previous Mitchells had told me before was true, for life). The first week of classes cascaded over me in a whirl of module guides. As I tried to study up on what each of the professors worked on – as well as to match their areas of expertise to the faces that I passed in the hallways – I wondered how this UK philosophy department would welcome me. After all, in undergrad, I had strayed from the conventional philosophical tradition into social and cultural theory with wild abandon, and now I had arrived in Belfast to work on theorizing race. Would my professors even be interested in the questions that drove my studies? Be patient, I counseled myself. Give it some time.
More than three months have gone by since my plane taxied to the gate at Belfast International. It has been lovely to watch myself settle in to a new city, to find new routines and new life rhythms, to meet and make new friends and mentors. Tuesdays are for climbing at the wall and holding down the US trivia knowledge afterwards at the Mountaineering Club’s weekly pub visit. Fridays bring together the philosophy department’s weekly reading group (and requisite pub visit afterwards. You might notice a trend.) In the mornings, I trek to the city center to post up for in my favorite coffee shop with a scone or in the beautiful Linen Hall Library where I dive into readings from Rawls and Pettit, Honneth and Taylor. Afternoons might see me on a run along the lough or in my professor’s office, arguing about the nature of autonomy. And, for the first time in a long time, my weekends are my own. With friends, I have headed out into the Mourne Mountains to hike or out to the sea cliffs to climb.
With one semester under my belt, I am thrilled to jump back into those new habits and new communities, to take my friendships further and my intellectual engagements deeper. Ahead of me lies an ice-climbing trip, a dissertation project on structural racism and political agency, scores of poetry readings, and many, many more afternoons spent with friends getting to know this city and its history. Slowly but surely, Belfast is becoming a home.