On my first day in Belfast, I learned that even when the weather app says it won’t rain, it will. On my second day in Belfast, I learned to always carry an umbrella. You may be wondering why I didn’t learn the second day’s lesson with the first, and that’s a fair question. A wise man may have. But hey, I’m not a wise man.
As someone who is often thinking about the past, I realized quickly that I had come to the right place. Belfast is a city that does not let you forget. There are “peace walls” that loom over the city and divide Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Street-art denoting political allegiance is commonplace in East and West Belfast. Politics is still deeply polarized in Northern Ireland. (If you’re interested in learning more about Northern Irish politics, check out “Burned: The Inside Story of the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ Scandal and Northern Ireland’s Secretive New Elite,” which is a new book out by Belfast-based journalist Sam McBride. It’ll make you cry, tear your hair out, and lose faith in electoral politics. I’m selling it well, right?)
But, as is with most places, Belfast is a city of neighborhoods. While the Troubles linger on in the east and west of the city, a tourist walking the leafy roads of South Belfast, or strolling around the banks of River Lagan, would not see obvious signs of conflict. But I suppose that’s the thing: not all signs of the past are obvious.
Through conversations with friends, neighbors, and classmates, I am constantly learning. These realizations have ranged from the trivial to the serious. My housemates have delighted in sharing British and Irish snacks with me – favorites include chocolate digestives, hobnobs, and Percy Pig. But I have also engaged in more challenging conversations around cultural belonging, identity politics, and public commemoration of the past. Whenever I am beginning to feel complacent, I am jolted back and reminded that there is much I don’t understand about this place and much I need to learn. When I shared that thought with a British friend of mine, he remarked that must be what Meghan Markle feels like each day too. And so marked the first and last time anyone will ever compare me to Meghan Markle.
My time in Belfast so far has been enriching, strange, fun, exhilarating, and challenging. Each day is a new experience, a new challenge, an unknown. I suppose, in a sense, it’s been exactly what I signed up for.