A while back, a few friends of mine discovered a Web site called CouchSurfing. Essentially, it's a worldwide network of people offering up crash space to strangers, free of charge and quid pro quo. Because what could possibly go wrong there, right?
Actually, very little, because it's well-organised and remarkably safe. And even though it sounds strange -- let strangers stay on your couch? really? -- I can think of no better way to actually discover the true fibre of a place.
Case in point, without CouchSurfing, Kat and I would likely never have done any of the following during our whirlwind visit to Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland:
-- Spent a day visiting Edinburgh Castle with a native German speaker, then spent the afternoon wandering around the city with both her and her boyfriend, confusing them to death by teaching them idiomatic English. (It gave me flashbacks of teaching my French exchange student the words from the theme to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air -- it was the only rap song I knew the words too -- and then attempting to explain what 'chillin' out, maxin', relaxin' all cool' meant.)
-- Gone Ceilidh dancing in the upstairs section of an Edinburgh bar -- with aforementioned exchange student wearing a kilt -- and discovering that once you get the beat, it starts to make sense.
-- Subsequently stayed out until 3 in the morning with four other, non-CouchSurfing-related complete strangers, reveling in the idea of making the world a smaller place.
-- Found ourselves standing in a kitchen in Dublin as two of seven people of seven different nationalities. (English, American, Italian, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Basque, if you're keeping score at home.) And, of course, found ourselves realising that it's quite sad that we don't speak any other languages.
-- Eaten an Italian meal prepared by an actual Italian -- and an ex-professional water polo playing Italian at that.
-- Gotten arguably the most honest tour of Belfast's troubled areas that one can get -- from someone who recognises the folly on both sides. And paid nothing for it, one might add.
-- Gone to 'Soul and Funk' night at a pub in Belfast, complete with a handful of guys with full-on 70s sideburns and hair. (How they get away with that in day-to-day life one can only wonder.) With, naturally, another batch of people from about six different countries. (France, Italy, Australia ... and a few others, I think.)
In summary, if you didn't catch that, CouchSurfing=good. I recommend it to anyone.
And the cities themselves? It really was a bit of a blur, but Edinburgh -- fit like a glove. Felt comfortable there even on the airport bus, and that feeling never faded. Dublin -- too expensive for my tastes, and somehow a little less friendly. More of a big-city feel. Belfast -- still a very conflicted place, even as the tensions of the past begin to fade somewhat. Stuck in a weird place between wanting to move beyond its history and knowing that it's what draws most people who come to visit (other than Dubliners looking to take advantage of the exchange rate, that is.)