Belfast Telegraph

You're welcome to your annual July exodus ... the real great escape is right here at home

The time-honoured rush to leave these shores at this time of year is a boon to those who choose to stay, writes Gail Walker

Oh to be in Northern Ireland now that summer - and nobody else - is here. I love this place during the holiday season. I know I'm going against received opinion, against years of the thrill of the great exodus.

How often do you hear people say that they simply HAVE to get out of here at this time of year? Or listen to endless media reports of how planes, trains and automobiles are fleeing the city like the last days of Saigon? Or scroll through social media and see your screen fill up with pictures of people's toes in the sand?

Not so long ago, those of us left in Northern Ireland in the first few weeks of July felt like we had roamed onto the set of an apocalyptic blockbuster where the last helicopter ferrying people to safety had just left and all we could do was wait for the comet to strike and tidal wave of despair to wash us away, leaving a world changed utterly in its wake.

It was run for higher ground or batten down the hatches, stockpile food and resolve to sit out the next few weeks behind heavily fortified doors.

And then you realise it's not actually like that at all. That those who leave are not the sole gainers. Indeed, for those left behind, there are compensations, if not downright boons.

While the airports are packed with sweaty fleeing fellow citizens, our thoroughfares are empty, the streets are clear and the remaining residents - by now several years in on the secret joy that awaits them - greet each other with shy but meaningful smiles, all saying the same thing: this isn't such a bad city after all, once it's empty.

Jump in the car and - am I dreaming? - the Westlink, temporarily giving up its 'Weaklink' nickname, is free of traffic. The gridlock has gone west, like the motorists.

And it gets even better. Get out of the car and stroll - yes, stroll - down the street. Gone are the huddled, cramped, lurching gaits, bodies tensed against the bitter winds which stab like icy knives. No, people make eye contact, smile and say hello.

This isn't Belfast - this is Bedford Falls out of the old Jimmy Stewart movie It's A Wonderful Life. In summer. You look around for a white picket fence and listen for the director's shout of 'Cut! That's a wrap!'

And you finally get time to look around, to see the city properly and, no, it's not some trick of the imagination. Belfast is beautiful. The purple hills that wrap round the city like a gentleman's hug, the light skittering across the waters of the River Lagan like... like what exactly? A glissando of notes? A sweep of tealights?

Free of the simmering melée that is other people, you see the city in a quite different perspective.

Gone are the stereotypes of sectarian conflict and division, the metropolis built on mud and profit. In its place, a city of fine architecture - at least whatever bits and bobs have survived Goering, the RA and, most lethal of all, that 1990s supergroup The Developers. Buy a copy of Central Belfast: An Historical Gazetteer and spend a few hours looking - really looking - all around you and discovering the city like never before.

Without the rush and the traffic, the whole place feels at ease. A kind of subdued, understated mellowness pervades. It lets out a collective sigh and breathes. Cafes are cool - literally and metaphorically - with shorter queues and warmer smiles.

Corner shops reset their clocks back to the late 1950s with staff engaging in amiable chit-chat about how undervalued pigeons are as a species, how you never get a free chip when you just order a fish supper nowadays, how chewing gum should be taxed at the upper end of the scale for that would sort out the gluey mess on the pavements when the sun gets hot, how Roger Moore in fact was a darn fine actor after all and never got the credit he deserved, how the Left ruined pop music, opting for the Communards against Abba, how it's time to drop the Big One on North Korea and sort them out once and for all, oh, ahem, still ... regardless of the subject matter, we heartily agree.

In the workplace, too, it can all seem more relaxed, despite the scramble to cover for others. The sense of the holidays permeates everywhere. If the weather is decent, people head off in the evenings for a BBQ. The hours move not more slowly, of course, but seem to travel at a different, more human, pace. Chats become more freewheeling and personal.

And, of course, home. No traffic jams anywhere for the gang at Good Evening Ulster to tell us about as the sun begins its slow setting over the city. The weather presenters will still do Big Sad Faces And Voices at the prospect of a shower of rain but you learn to ignore this - endless hot weather is over-rated any way.

Later, in the evening, you will open a window to hear the reassuring purr of the odd passing car and, like a small miracle, a trill (or more accurately a thrill) of bird song from somewhere in the gathering gloom.

In short - you who leave will find this very hard to credit - those of us left behind get a chance to live in a civilised city. Sure, once the bonfires have died down to a sputtering grey circle of ash and the City Council's wee trucks have glided humming up the Lisburn Road hoovering up the tins and the bottles and the plastic hats and the odd baffled Orangeman, it's actually a quiet, humdrum, small regional city …

And you could almost believe that to be true, here, in the summer, in Belfast, in these weeks of July. You can almost see and feel the city it might have been and, who knows, might still be someday.

So, to those of you only too willing to shake the dust of this seemingly benighted place off your feet, who think those who stay behind are just thick or bigots or poor, or all three, I would like to say 'thank you'. And to say also that, genuinely, you don't know what you're missing.

I do wish you were here but, er, I'm rather glad you're not.

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