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Shaista Aziz is a freelance journalist who has worked for the BBC, Al Jazeera and The Guardian. She writes about race, gender and Islam.

The train journey from my home city of Oxford, England, to my adopted city of Manchester takes just under three hours. It's a journey I've made frequently since I moved out of Manchester five years ago. I returned to Manchester with a broken heart following Monday's terrorist attack.

I'm a southerner born and raised in Oxford but ever since I was a kid, I knew I was a spiritual northerner. The north is where my heart has always been.

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My Pakistani immigrant father arrived in Britain when he was 16 years old and first settled in the Yorkshire mill town of Halifax before moving south to Oxford. He spent most of his life living and working in Oxford, but very much remained a spiritual northerner and he instilled this love of the north in me – his eldest child and only daughter.

Related: 4,000 troops to patrol Britain's streets as police hunt bombing network

When I was 16, my parents, brothers and I did a road trip back to the beautiful north, my father reminiscing about his time living in Yorkshire and how much he loved the stunning countryside. My beloved father had the warmth and charm of a northern soul; he had the ability to chat with anyone and everyone and make them feel at ease and like they mattered.

On the train to Manchester Tuesday afternoon, England's green and pleasant land looked magnificent – a picture-perfect carpet of yellow and green contrasting with the clear deep blue sky.

A woman sat down next to me on the train. We smiled at each other and exchanged some very polite British small talk. I asked her if my bag was in the way and if she had enough leg room. She insisted that it was fine. I asked her where she was travelling to – she looked at me and replied "Manchester," and then there was a moment of silence between us. "Same here," I said. We both took an intake of breath.

After this, we pretty much spoke non-stop on our way into the city. I asked after her family and children and if they were all okay. She thanked me for asking about them and told me how she first heard about the unimaginable horror.

Then we got to talking about Manchester, the city, the place she calls home and the place that will always be a home away from home for me.

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"It's a feeling, isn't it? Manchester is a feeling. It's hard to explain to people who don't live here or who've never been here, but this is what it is. It's just … just a feeling. You either get it – or you don't – and you get it," she said.

"Yes! This is exactly it. It's a feeling. One that can't be shaken off," I responded. We both smiled at each other and then I asked the woman her name. "My name is Charlotte." She said and we shook hands. "Nice to meet you, Charlotte." I said.

Manchester was soaked in sunshine that day – and overwhelmed in sadness. At the city's Albert Square, 25,000 people gathered – the young, the old, children and teenagers. A band played, their notes reaching those of us who couldn't get to the front of the crowd. A little girl in a red summer dress was running on a bench. Her mother, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, tried to catch her, but her little one was too fast for her.

The world lives in Manchester in a very different way than how it lives in London.

Here when someone asks you, "How are you?" they really want to know. The question is usually asked with a cheeky smile and the word "love" added on the end of the sentence. The feeling of Manchester.

In Albert Square, couples held each other and strangers caught each other's eyes and smiled and nodded. It was impossible to hear those addressing the crowds as far back as we were.

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Just like those attending the concert, Tuesday represented the diversity of the people of Manchester. In Albert Square, people from all walks of life and from all backgrounds gathered to show their respect to those who died. Here it was – the feeling that is Manchester – a city united.

Walking back from Albert Square, a taxi driver sitting in the front seat of his car was playing the saxophone. When he finished playing a young man walked over to him, shook his hand and said, "Thank you, man. I needed that. Thank you."

Manchester is a city that has soul unlike any other place that I have had the privilege to call home. I lived here for four years and this city changed me in so many ways – it pulled my defences down because it makes you open up. Mancunians don't make small talk. They just make you talk and they listen.

It is a city that makes you get used to rain and not just any rain, but Manchester rain, full on tropical monsoon downpours in non-monsoon temperatures. A city that teaches you how to "brew" a proper cup of tea rather than make a cup of tea. This is a lesson that every Brit needs to learn.

On the way to a friend's house we drove past a huge sign that read: "Manchester means the world to me." And this for me sums up how my friends, the people I love, are dealing with this catastrophe. My dear friend and proud Mancunian Hazel O'Keefe put it best: "We are Manchester. We are proud to call this place home. A city filled with resilience and strength, facing this atrocity with dignity."

Manchester Evening News has set up a fund for people wanting to donate to the victims and families of the Manchester Arena attack.

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