Orla Foster

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City Views: Sheffield

At first Sheffield was hard to read. My accommodation building, new and sterile, jutted sharply out of the wasteland like it had survived a blast.  The whole area was going through identity crisis. Inside people's parents benevolently unpacked Waitrose bags, the only supermarket visible from the endless ringroads. Outside lay a basketball court, sprinkled with glass.

By night men lurked in the shadows and asked freshers their rates, and the freshers stared back at them in shock.  

I felt unmoored, unsure of who to speak to, what to do. "I don't know how to be in Sheffield," I wrote in my diary. "I am like weak tea, or unsalted crisps." My personality felt under threat in this strange new place, walled off from everything I knew. I propped open my door in case flatmates dropped by, but this only made the late-night calls to their long-distance boyfriends louder.

Gradually I ventured out, Pulp or Arctic Monkeys blasting from every pub. We drank Snakebite, or sometimes Moonshine, but only from the late bars who never cleaned their pipes properly. We didn't mind, just thought Moonshine was supposed to taste of bleach.

Then Sheffield took shape. Sheffield of steep staircases. Sheffield of far-too-big sandwiches. Sheffield, of quiet streets and watery rainbows in slate-grey skies. We realised we liked the quiet when we returned half-dead from a night out in Leeds, overstimulated and full of Daiquiris. You didn't have to dress up in Sheffield, could wear jeans all year round if you wanted. People armoured up in full Patagonia just to walk to work.

Then I drifted from the university's bars into its offices. I returned to temp at an English language school, in the same district I'd started out. The wasteland was now a self-contained city, adorned with en-suites and aspirational slogans. Applicants emailed us feverishly about their dreams of studying in Sheffield. "Even if there is no chair left in the classroom, I will just stand," one pleaded.

My path now crossed with people from all over the place, who'd taken a blind risk to land in Sheffield. The Panamanians with their great parties. The Mexicans who blew my mind with pineapple and tajín. My Shanghai neighbour, whose parents sat cheerfully in our house watching slashers though they spoke no English. Crucially, I learned how Moonshine should taste.

In work we'd hold food days, sliding back our keyboards to horse down Romanian salad, pakoras, jerk chicken, Chinese dumplings, grits, gỏi cuốn (made by a Yorkshireman, but let's not split hairs), or the regional specialty of anyone who happened to be in our office at the time. At another colleague's house, we clustered around a giant Spanish ham, wondering who would be bold enough to carve the first slice.

You can't promise Sheffield's charms to overnight visitors. If they don't step out of the centre they might not see past the chain restaurants, the cracked boards where things like Rare&Racy used to be. Flyover country. They aren't going to catch a gig at Delicious Clam, or eat börek from Aleppo Castle, or lose an afternoon in Kelham pubs. 

But those who settle here, even for a short while, soon see past the ringroads. Your time might be dictated by the ink on your visa, but the place sticks. Like the Tokyo friend who peers from his office window, thinking wistfully of summer picnics in the Ponderosa. The Baghdad friend who sends concerned emojis whenever there's bad news in the UK. The Bogotá friend who gets in touch on birthdays insisting I go have a pint of Moonshine on his behalf. I will, and this time I won't settle for bleach.

2020. Original version published by Exposed [p.13].