On Friday evening I found myself standing in Belfast airport, looking supremely confident in my ability to find the exit but in actual fact feeling the complete opposite. A cool breeze briefly disrupted the stagnant air inside the terminal building, indicating that I was close to my first step on Northern Irish soil for seven years. After a one-sided conversation with a bus driver (not that he didn't respond to my questions, I just couldn't understand a word of his thick, high-pitched accent) I paid what I thought was the right fare, grabbed the ticket to the incomprehensible destination and shuffled to the back of the empty bus.
I find something nice about being the very first person on a bus, each seat offers a different experience. The raised seats at the back of the bus gives an almost regal view over the peasants in front of you. Placing yourself on the back seat also enables you to play a favourite game of my sisters. You bounce once on the seat to see how long you can make other passengers heads wobble, the winner making heads wobble the longest - endless entertainment! The seats towards the front are my least favourite as they tend to get clogged up with people too scared, too lazy or simply unable to walk any further back. I prefer the middle of the bus, there's usually less leg room but a window seat just before the seating rises becomes the most anonymous location on the vehicle.
I guzzle down a bottle of water, attempting to hydrate myself after the stuffy, air-conditioned plane and and the effects of a birthday party the night before. The bus lurches into life as my mind starts to wander back to my last experience of Northern Ireland. I was attending a wedding reception in the troubled city of Armagh and had sneaked out with my cousin to a nearby nightclub. Fuelled by alcohol we tried talking to people but were often ignored after a few seconds, it was a little odd but one lad nice enough to talk to us explained the situation. "It's because of your English accents" he said as it suddenly dawned on me that this was no ordinary town, the bombed hotel in the papers the night before should have suggested this. I actually felt a little vulnerable all of a sudden, the effects of the alcohol temporarily disappearing. I visualised myself amongst my friend back in Wales and switched back to a Welsh accent, this seemed to do the trick as we found people to be a bit more receptive. The following morning I discovered that this particular night-club had recently seen some violent clashes between loyalist and republican supporters and to think we had been running around with English accents amongst it all shook me up a little.
Before too long the bus had pulled into the centre of Belfast prompting the driver to turn around and reel off another couple of sentences, I picked up the words 'final stop' and got up to leave. I made a comment which he found hilarious, I like to think I knew what he said to me after that but I just smiled and stepped out onto the street. Friday night in Belfast was in full swing, I could hear music blaring out from a nearby bar and saw all the smokers spilling out onto the street. It was only a short walk to the hotel but I suddenly felt apprehensive after my Armagh experience, seven years previously. I soon cast aside that feeling, times had changed and Belfast was a completely different city anyway. I approached the hotel and glanced to my right. I was given a chilling reminder of the past by a large mural on the side of a building 100 yards away stating "You are now entering Loyalist Sandy Row Heartland of South Belfast" along with a balaclava-wearing man wielding an automatic rifle.
Mural aside, I didn't feel as though Belfast was different to any other UK city. Many bars were inter-connected by a maze of doors and live music belted out from more than a few of them but the beer tasted the same and once you got used to the local accent it was just like being back at home. The Guinness went down extremely smoothly and before too long they'd reached double figures in a myriad of different pubs and bars. 2am suddenly jumped up at us and we decided it was best to head back to the hotel, we had to be up early because after all, we were there for work.