This is going to get a little sentimental (for my usual, less sentimental take on the news, see here), but bear with me just this once…
A sense of place, or sense of belonging, is a strange thing.
I spent most of my first 18 years living in Northumberland – that beautiful corner of North East England which to this day is still a relatively well kept secret. I had a pretty charmed upbringing – a loving family, stable school life, and a small but nice group of friends to explore those heady teenage years with.
And yet, it wasn’t until I moved 350 miles and over the English/Welsh border that I ever felt that I really, physically, belonged somewhere.
From the first time I saw Cardiff through sheets of driving rain on a university open day in 2004 and thought “This is beautiful! And it’s PISSING down!”, I knew it was where I wanted to be
The cream stone and wide boulevards of the Civic Centre and university campus soothed me in a way the rolling hills of Northumberland never quite had. And the bustling city centre with its twisting arcades, faded Victorian market, and majestic Millennium Stadium slap-bang in the middle represented a world of possibility for a small-town girl.
But even after the instant chemistry stirred by that first visit, I could not have known when my parents dropped me at my student halls in September 2005 how I would come to love this city.
I did not know that its shabby student accommodation, with its tiny box rooms and grubby kitchens, would lead me to some of the best people I could ever hope to meet. Friends who made me want to laugh, dance, sing, lean on them, and have them lean on me. Friends with no agenda, other than you and them.
I did not know that the joy of study in the cool dark halls and hot stuffy library of the city’s journalism school would make me comfortable in my own skin – no longer afraid to be a little bit geeky, and totally certain in my childhood ambition to become a reporter.
Later that same school, through gruelling hours of postgraduate study – crossing the train tracks through 6am mists – would give me the practical skills I needed to fulfil that ambition, as well as another group of wonderful friends: smart, clever, funny, articulate, and still challenging me at every opportunity.
I did not know that Cardiff would be a place where I would fall in love; learn what it is to make your life with someone, and create shared favourite places.
Later still, it would be the place where I would learn about heartbreak. It was here our relationship (mine and the city’s) was tested the most. But once again it rose up to meet me, sheltering me in an undiscovered part of the city, giving me a new place – a space without ghosts – to call my own. It gave me its beautiful parks and long river trails where I learned to run. This became a constant element at a time when all else seemed to be falling apart, and later brought me discipline, focus and confidence. Those green lungs of the city taught me to breathe again.
And although I knew Cardiff would lead me to meet many a Welsh person (obviously), I did not know how much they would teach me. To be passionate, but fair; to have absolute pride in the things you believe in, but always be able to laugh at yourself; that banter with strangers is not something to be afraid of; that Welsh cakes are amazing; and that rugby really is the most exciting sport in the world.
So now as I get ready to leave Cardiff, for a new adventure in a new city, there are so many things I will miss. Ninja – the man who plays the bins, but will also corner you to have a chat about the denigration of the English language in Waterstones. The fact that strawberries, despite a double-dip recession and a struggling economy, will always be a pound from the stall near the station. Acting like it’s no big deal when you see half of the Welsh rugby team hanging out in your local. Acting like it’s no big deal when you see the cast of Doctor Who or Sherlock filming around the city with BBC Wales. Never, ever going out without an umbrella. And the brilliant community of creative, intelligent people that have allowed me to keep making lovely friends, even outside the structures of university or work.
But most of all I’ll miss getting off the train at Cardiff Central and knowing not just that I know this city, but that this city knows me. For better, and for worse.
My story is not unique – I am far from the first girl to go to university to “find” herself. But that a physical place could have given me so much, and made me one of its own, has humbled me as I leave.
The time is right to go. But Cardiff will always feel like home.
Back to the news next month, I promise…
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