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  • Writer's pictureMilena Williamson

Five Years in Belfast

On September 12th 2017 I arrived in Belfast. I think of this day as my Belfast-iversary, and each year I like to stop and think about how much has changed in a year. This year marks five years—longer than I lived in my previous hometown of Oberlin, Ohio, where I was an undergraduate student and where I recently visited for the first time since saying goodbye. So perhaps this year, more than others, I wanted to take the time to reflect.

Living in a place for five years means I’ve seen a lot of change happen. The old students’ union came down and the new one has finally opened. The Primark half-burned down and the pedestrian area in city centre came and went. Bookfinders, the second-hand bookstore/cafe/gathering spot for poets/pillar of community was turned into over-priced student flats, of which there are now too many around the university (your daily reminder that capitalism benefits only those at the top, who care more about money than scholarship or the wellbeing of students, staff and faculty). I have lived in four different flats or houses—with friends, by myself, and now with my partner whom I love.

Some of the changes are less visible, but no less exciting. This past month has been full of personal and professional transformation. I completed the final edits on my debut pamphlet, Charm for Catching a Train (more on this soon!), started a new job and handed in my PhD. August 2022 literally finished with a bang; at 11:56 pm on August 31st, I sent one of the most significant emails ever…with my PhD attached!

Oh and the cherry on top is that I went to two weddings: one wedding in Michigan (can you say 1,500+ mile road trip to see some of my best friends, crying my eyes out and dancing for joy?) and one wedding in Poland (an unforgettable mash-up of both Polish and Grand Canarian culture). I love celebrating the people I love and the love in their lives.

Some wedding flowers in a purple vase on a dining room table
Some flowers from my friend's wedding! They made it 750 miles in the car from Michigan to Pennsylvania!

August started with me and my partner in Swarthmore, sweltering in the heat, eating blackberry sorbet popsicles (or lollies) and writing at the dining room table. We spent the summer with my family and friends, watching Call My Agent and going for walks. This time feels even more precious to me since the pandemic. Even though the painful feeling in my heart-in my head-in my body of being separated from my loved ones has faded, I hug people a little longer now. I (try to) express my love and care more freely even as I sometimes feel more shy and awkward at the large social gatherings that I’m not accustomed to.

August ended with me and my partner back in Belfast. He made more dinners than I can count while I fell into the laptop-wormhole of my PhD. When you work on something for three years and eight months, well, it can feel a little all-consuming.

So, forgive me, if September has felt like something of a blur. I barely know what date it is. I barely know how I did it—I did it. I finished my PhD. During the last year of it, I was working three jobs at one point: as an art gallery assistant, a teaching assistant and a postgraduate skills assistant. I haven’t had a haircut since before Christmas of last year. My desk at home in Belfast is so messy that I have to clear a space every time I want to work there (see Mom and Dad, some things never change!).

But I don’t want this blog to glorify hustle culture. I am glad that my life is simpler now. As of September 1st, I do not have a PhD hanging over me, calling me to the laptop (or making me feel guilty for not doing so) on the rare sunny day in Belfast. I can start writing again—something new and something for myself. I can leave my work at work and come home and embrace self-care. For the first time in years, I have returned to a childhood passion: fantasy novels. I know I’m late to the game since my family and friends have been telling me to read this for years, but I’m obsessed with the Throne of Glass series. As in, I read 600 pages over the weekend because I wanted to.

Maybe I will even start blogging regularly.

A dining room table covered with books and paper
I'm only responsible for half of this mess!

This Belfast-iversary feels more special (and more scary) than other ones. I came to Belfast to do the MA in poetry and I stayed to do a PhD in poetry. Yes, I’m technically still a student at QUB while I prepare for my viva and my graduation probably won’t be until the spring, but for the first time, my life in Belfast (and my life…ever?) isn’t directly linked to my studies.

Thanks to all my friends and family, in Ireland and America, for supporting me through this PhD and for making me feel loved despite the distance. Poetry brought me to Belfast, but it’s the love and care from all of you that keeps me chasing my big dreams!

Sending love an ocean away!


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