We left Northern Ireland in the wee hours on Sunday, September 25.
Neil's dad came to pick us up at Botanic Rest Bed and Breakfast, where we'd been staying for the past two nights. Located in the University Quarter only a stone's throw away from Queen's, this place is an old Victorian townhouse that's been renovated as a B&B. Really, it's more of a hostel than anything, but the rooms are very clean and the whole establishment is run by friendly students. Three of them helped us get our bike into the narrow alleyway behind the building.
One of the nice things about hostels is that other guests tend to be up for a conversation. The downside of this, of course, is that you can't control who these people are. As we dismantled and packed up our bike in the TV room, we were joined by a drunk Scottish dad who seemed to see us as a captive market. After spending half an hour regaling us with his not-terribly-interesting life story, presumably in an attempt to build up a rapport, he then turned to trying to sell us "so real-looking you'd never believe it" Prada purses, whilst his no doubt long-suffering son looked on, munching on chicken wings.
After we finished tinkering, we met Neil's dad for a quick dinner at the Town Square, just across the street from Botanic Rest, and then had a pint with Paul, a childhood friend of Neil's who was one of our most enthusiastic cheerleaders from the moment he heard of our plans ("Aye, I'll drive behind you and be your support vehicle!"). He was pleased to see us in one piece, and we shared a yarn or two about what we had seen from our unique perspective of being on the road in something other than a car. From the damp cold and double dose of the lurgy that it gave us, to the endless drumlins that at times made us want to chuck the bike in a ditch, to the incredibly kind people we met who took us in and nursed us back to health, it was yet another trip of a lifetime.
Memories such as these flashed like the street lamps streaking past the car window on our quiet drive to Belfast International Airport. We got there for 5 AM, breezed through check-in and security, and had plenty of time to raid Boots for cheap painkillers to take back to Germany, where simple aspirin costs over twenty times more than in the UK.
Finally, we had nothing else to do but sit and think.
The main reason why we embarked on this cycle tour was because Jess wanted to learn more about where Neil came from. With its troubled history and its continually faltering attempts to move on from it, Northern Ireland is by no means an unknown corner of the world. But sadly, for many people their knowledge of it ends there. If they looked beyond the headlines, they would find a people whose similarities are far more numerous, and far deeper, than their differences. They love their families and friends, and cherish their tightly-knit communities. However little they might have, they will give to you with a good dose of humour attached.
Because that's really how they operate here. Everything is funny, nothing is too serious, and they have a gift for breaking your guard down and inviting you to join them in laughter. For isn't that what life is about? Seeing the silver lining in stormy weather, sharing a joke to ease the pain? Northern Irish people certainly know a thing or two about that, and in this nation of storytellers, it's always worth listening to what they have to say.
Or sing. Their bonhomie is so infectious that during the 2016 European Championships, the entire world joined them in singing a song about a Northern Irish footballer who never played a single minute during the tournament. It's a joyous, intense brand of silliness that's all their own.
That said, nothing here is as happy-go-lucky as it may seem on the surface. As you read through our tales, you'll find that that easy humour can serve as a mask of inscrutability which can make a visitor like Jess feel left out of the joke. Neil once said that unless you grew up here, you will never fully understand it, and even if you are a local, it is often a perplexing and infuriating place. But you can try, and they'll welcome your effort.
So go ahead and see what it's like for yourself. Northern Ireland boasts some of the most beautiful, diverse scenery you'll find anywhere, in an area small enough that you can easily see it all in a couple of weeks. A bicycle will take you off the beaten path, which you will find to be littered with hidden gems. And when you visit those places, talk to the people who live there. Share a bit of yourself and be open. Ask questions and watch as you get back far more than you put in. Then pay it forward.
It's worth it.