A few days ago I went into the centre of Belfast because of an important business meeting and within minutes I felt like a stranger in my own city, where I have worked and lived for over 50 years.
One of my favourite parts of Belfast is around our magnificent City Hall and the spacious Donegall Square, leading on to Bedford Street as far as the traffic lights at the BBC. In this relatively small area I have often worked and been entertained (or entertained myself) for most of my adult life.
One of the architectural jewels of this area is the Ulster Hall, where I have attended very many concerts ranging from those by our excellent Ulster Orchestra right through to Belfast Music School's annual concerts, including those where my granddaughter Cara has appeared on stage. On one occasion long ago I queued at the Ulster Hall box office for a ticket to a classical concert featuring the music of Tchaikovsky. In front of me were two cloth-capped Ulstermen who were talking loudly, and I marvelled at the drawing power of Tchaikovsky. However, just as we reached the box office counter one of the Ulstermen in dunchers said loudly to his mate: "Jimmy, we are in the wrong place. The wrestling is on at the King's Hall the night, not the Ulster Hall."
The Ulster Hall has also staged wrestling and boxing in its long history, and in classical music terms it is reckoned by nearly all the eminent visiting conductors and soloists I have interviewed as having some of the best acoustics of any concert hall in Europe.
The Ulster Hall has staged many important political rallies and it has long been at the centre of much of our local history, including that fateful day in 1912 when the anti-Home Rule audience filled it and then marched to the City Hall, where many of them signed the Ulster Covenant in their own blood.
Not far away is the stately Presbyterian Church House headquarters in Fisherwick Place, where I have reported many stories in my role as religion correspondent for this newspaper for nearly two decades. Across the road stands the Europa Hotel, world famous for surviving so many bombings, including one of the first that I reported for this newspaper and later for the Manchester Guardian.
So this relatively small area of Belfast has always been close to my heart, and when I went there recently I subconsciously expected to be returning to a little bit of my spiritual and worldly home after such a long absence due to the lockdown. I even expected to have to drive around the block a couple of times to find a parking space in one of the normally most traffic-congested parts of the city.
The reality was rather different. I drove past the Ulster Hall and found one of several empty places in the normally crowded parking space beside the BBC building, and that was a real bonus. I had about a half-hour free before my business appointment, and I had intended to indulge myself with a coffee in one of the nearby cafe/restaurants while reading my pristine copies of The Times and the Belfast Telegraph.
Sadly, the newspaper shop on the block was the only place that seemed to be open, and I set off to walk past the closed and sadly gloomy Ulster Hall in search of my obligatory morning coffee.
My journey took me round to Great Victoria Street, just beside the Europa, where there is normally a very busy coffee shop just beside the entrance to the bus and railway station. To my relief the coffee shop was open, but apart from one other person, who came rather too close to me to maintain social distancing, I was the only other coffee addict in the place.
After being served by a charming young woman wearing blue gloves, I sat outside in the rare Belfast sunshine to watch the world go by. Unfortunately that was a dream rather than a reality, as it seemed that very little of the world was actually going by. The buses were largely empty, the other traffic was light and the few people who passed me either way were much younger than me. There hardly seemed a person over 40 in sight.
So I sat there nursing my coffee and wondering to myself if this was the Belfast I had known for so long and had come to love (with all its frustrations and faults). Or, on the contrary, was it a strangely half-empty and half-closed city still trying to come to terms with the complexities of easing itself out of the long lockdown? I was sitting at a cafe in Great Victoria Street looking up and down what used to be called the Golden Mile - the link between the newly refurbished Grand Opera House and Queen's University, the home of what was the Queen's Festival, which every November brought light into the darkness of the Troubles and helped the rejuvenation of a cultural life in Belfast that was virtually dying at the time.
Reflecting on my memories of the Golden Mile at its best, I really did feel a little strange in a place which had become part of my DNA. However, I was also aware that Belfast and its people are resilient. We have survived more than 40 years of bombs and bullets and we will survive this pandemic.
My recent experience of going into Belfast for the first time in over three months also made me realise that coming out of this lockdown may be more complicated than many of us think. For a long time thousands of us have been locked away in our own bubble, watching the outside world on television or reading about it in our newspapers.
There is also the feeling that because the hotels, restaurants and pubs have been allowed to reopen, the pace of life is back to normal.
The reality is that a good number of these are not yet open, and instead of a half normal and partly bustling city, which I naively expected to find, there is still a sense of strange emptiness in some familiar places, which will only disappear when normality returns, however long that may take.
Understandably, many people are still frightened and anxious about the pandemic and they are hesitant about returning to their own familiar haunts throughout Belfast.
Without doubt the same applies to other parts of this province and island. I know also that our traders and shopowners and other institutions are showing courage in reopening and we must do all we can to help them by going out and spending. Nevertheless, employers and business experts are holding their breath about the possible dire economic consequences of the lockdown, but there is also the important social challenge of how all of us - individually and collectively - will come to terms with trying to live with the new normal, which is still not at all normal in so many respects.
No doubt I will continue to stay in love with my version of Belfast as I too play my part with everyone else in trying to come back to normality, but I have realised the hard way that one of the hitherto hidden prices to pay for the long pandemic lockdown is to feel - however fleetingly - a stranger in my own city.
But I also know that better days undoubtedly lie ahead for all of us.