When I first moved to Hamilton in the fall of 2014, I’d visited the city once before, for a tour of McMaster. It was a bony, grey day in November, and most of what I remember is a confusing maze of campus parking and one-way streets. The trip culminated in an accidental voyage up the mountain, and although I didn’t know it at the time, it was my first bird’s eye view of the city I would come to love almost as much as the city where I grew up.

In the years that have followed, Hamilton truly has come to be a second home, one that has allowed me to try to be a grown up for the first time. And while so many intersections, shops and views of the city feel like places where I belong now, I still remember what they all looked like when they were new to me.

Do you know what I mean? That feeling where your surroundings look like the set from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Everything seems a bit too big for itself. The angles are too sharp, the layout just abnormal enough to stick with you. Eventually those edges smooth and become familiar, but sometimes if you look closely, you can see where you used to think that corner or table or window was, superimposed on the reality of the space.

Hamilton’s unfamiliar edges were smoothed in a few ways. The first was through early — and lasting — friends I made in my first year. I went out with friends who were from out of town and wanted to explore different parts of our new home. And I became best friends with someone I met at my first meeting at the Silhouette, a person and a place that both became integral parts of my undergraduate experience.

But I also spent a lot of time alone in first year, and as an avid runner I made it a mission to map my newly expanded world. Every time I left campus for a morning run, I could feel the borders of what I knew about Hamilton expanding, and along with it, my sense of belonging. As I prepare to finish my undergraduate degree and potentially leave Hamilton, I’m left trying to link all these places together and preserve exactly how it came to feel like home.

I can’t claim to remember old school King William the way some of my older or more Hamiltonian friends do, but I do remember that the first few memorable outings I went on in Hamilton were treks to the downtown street. I went to Homegrown Hamilton with my parents after my tour of McMaster, and I later returned with a good friend to celebrate the completion of our first semester of university. Similarly, I remember figuring out how to bus downtown one night in September to make it to a show at Baltimore House. Both these Hamilton institutions disappeared over the course of my undergrad, but they remain some of my earliest familiar places in the city.

A short jaunt down James Street from King William lies one of my favourite places on earth: the Brain. My best friend and I became regulars there in second year, and it was love at first beer. I’ve written about my favourite bar and place to hang out in the Sil before, and if you know me, I’ve no doubt recommended you check it out (just maybe not for a first date). Nevertheless it bears repeating that feeling at home here made me feel at home in Hamilton unlike any other place in the city. I credit the Brain with so many relationships I have within the city, and I remain convinced that it exists outside of time. There’s probably a portal to its twin bar on the other side of the world somewhere in the basement, but that’s just a hunch.

In second year, I felt more secure in my understanding of the structure of the downtown core. I knew which buses went where (after making many mistaken trips on the 5/52 in first year and having to walk all the way to the end of north quad) and I was getting a bit tired of running the same downtown loops along King, Main and Aberdeen. I began to add the Waterfront and Princess Point Trails into my roster of routes, and during a confusing and emotionally taxing year, these quiet spots provided me with a space to breathe and take in my surroundings away from other people. I loved getting to see how the trails looked during each season, and figuring out that the Waterfront Trail was a quieter, albeit longer, route to some of my favourite parts of downtown made me feel like a bit more of an insider in the city.

After seeing the city’s northern edge, I wanted to find that bird’s eye view again, this time without my parents frantically checking a road map. One of my favourite discoveries in Hamilton was that I could literally run up the mountain via multiple staircases that clung to the side of its face. I loved scaling the metal stairs while it was still dark out and watching the city wake up below. It was — and remains — such a peaceful and rewarding start to a long day.

By the end of my second year, I could effectively navigate the city on my own, from main streets to quiet neighbourhoods to trails. And while I had people like my friends and housemates who made Hamilton feel like home, I didn’t have a place that made that same impression.

That changed when I toured the apartment I’ve now lived in for two years with two different roommates. The bright yellow front door immediately sold me, and seeing that the unit was my lucky number felt like a good omen. I remember how optimistic I felt when I crossed its threshold for the first time, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It was perfect; lots of natural light, with plenty of cozy, bright spaces and a kitchen that actually had a little bit of counter space. It was vacant at the time, but I could already see how my roommate and I were going to make it feel like home.

We signed the lease almost immediately, and in the months between the signing and moving in, I ran by the building almost every week. I learned where all the side streets went, figured out which coffee shops were closest and altered my old, favourite running routes to adapt to what would become my new start and finish point.

Over the past two years, that little apartment has smoothed unfamiliar edges in the city in a way no other place has. I cooked, like really cooked, for the first time in that kitchen. I hosted my first dinner parties there. I finally lived somewhere where I was happy to just spend time.

I could tell you about so many of my other favourite places; the otter stencil near James and Cannon, the ship-shaped play structure at the Bayfront, the always interesting area just outside Jackson Square. But Hamilton is also your city to find your way in, so go and find it.

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