Waterstones and the Lagan

Curls of heat come from my tea and although I sip it gingerly, I never fail to burn my tongue. Still getting used to drinking my daily tea – among other habits I’ve picked up after a few months in Belfast. Some among them: saying “wee” and “flat” and “grand,” perpetually carrying an umbrella, and as I am now, sitting at Waterstones Cafe to do my work, next to the big windows where I can see rain-soaked pedestrians amble by. I’ve been to a few coffee shops: Established Coffee in the Cathedral Quarter, Blue Train in Queen’s Quarter, and The Pantry at Crescent Arts Centre on University Road. But I find myself today and countless others returning to my tried and true: the Waterstones Cafe in Linen Quarter.

Maybe I frequent here the most because it’s right in the city center, less than a ten minute walk away from my accommodation. It’s also the most spacious, and I feel like I have more room for my thoughts and laptop and notebook and twenty Zebra Pilot pens. I love being around all the books, too: I’ve made a routine of reading before bed every night, especially having joined a local book club (this year we’ve read The Cat Who Saved Books, Small Things Like These, and for March are reading Lazy City). I’ve loved reading Irish and Northern Irish women authors like Claire Keegan, Susannah Dickey, Lucy Caldwell, and Michelle Gallin – and of course Sally Rooney, whose novels and short stories were my pre-orientation program for my Mitchell year. I get most of my recommendations (if not from my book club) from the owner of a local bookshop, No Alibis, on Botanic.

I bring my book-club novels and novellas with me on buses and trains, reading until the motion sickness gets the better of me. On the 9 to my reformer pilates classes on Lisburn Road in South Belfast, or on a day trip to Bangor or Derry. I used to be this way in elementary school, clutching my Junie B. Jones to my chest throughout the day in anticipation of a free moment to read. I always read before bed when I was a kid, too: 20 minutes a day for my Language Arts homework. I think I love being in a book club here because it grounds me in time and place, here in Belfast, but also because my renewed love of reading brings me a sense of nostalgia that soothes my bouts of homesickness (which happen more often than I thought they would, but also remind me how special my year here is).

I pack up my bag and clear my table for the next Waterstones patron. Some days I’ll walk home wearing my headphones and let Caroline Polachek block out my thoughts; other days like today I let myself hear the sounds of the city. They’re not particularly nice (it’s a lot of construction) but it grounds me in the moment. (I even sleep with my window open every night despite the drunk shouting, cars honking, and early wakeup to drilling on the street below my flat. I’m sure I’ll miss it when I return to dead-quiet American suburbia later this summer.)

When I’m back in my flat, I change into my running clothes and grab my Brooks and my AirPods. I’ve been running more consistently here but rarely more than a couple miles, although the Lagan River Towpath has been perfect for the occasional long run. I’ve found a pretty decent path: up Ormeau Road, maybe into the park, or I’ll simply turn left at the bridge to run along the Lagan for a few blocks until I emerge back near Lanyon train station and complete my loop. Runs and long walks through the city are never dull; you’re bound to come across a new mural or memorial you hadn’t noticed before. Belfast is like that: you turn that corner you always walk past and boom, you’re face-to-face with highly political street art you otherwise would never have known was there.

Below are some glimpses of street art, memorialization, and public activism from the past few weeks in Belfast and Derry, which stopped me in my tracks long enough for me to capture a quick photo – taken while on a run, or long walk, or another walking tour (I’m at five in Belfast, three in Derry, and counting!):

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