We had never planned to visit Wales. But we were offered the opportunity to stay in a Welsh cottage for a few days. The invitation extended to a fortnight. We were given the opportunity to travel narrowboat through England and Wales. A request to couchsurf with a family on the Welsh coast was accepted. Suddenly we realized that we would be spending a month in Wales.
Sitting in a quiet cottage in Wales has given SWMBO lots of time to ruminate. The following post could be classified as garbled existentialism (with a few non-sequitors thrown in for good measure).
Occasionally, you meet a person. Two months ago, I had never met this particular person. This person is much older than me, grew up on another continent, and has led a very different life. This person married a learned man and raised two children in foreign countries.
She has welcomed us into her homes in France and Wales and every object in each house is something that I covet and/or something I had hoped to buy. And I mean every. single. object. The playing cards – I wanted to buy them at Mont St. Michel but they were pricey. The plates. The slate. Every object is meaningful/hand crafted/beautiful and what I would choose myself if I could.
This person is well-educated and intelligent – both qualities I prize. This person has a good sense of humour. Something I also prize. So far, these are qualities I believe I possess. Whew.
Shabby chic door, Porto
But this person is gracious (NOT me). This person is quiet and doesn’t push her opinions on people (NOT me). This person not only cherishes different and troubled people (as I do) but she also accepts them (as I don’t) into her heart and her home. She welcomes pets and young children into her home (as I don’t). She has infinite patience. And yet retains her wit and sense of humour (as I definitely don’t).
I have been privileged to meet people before who welcome strangers into their hearts and offer their possessions unreservedly – our couchsurfers in Porto welcomed us with a literal key to their home. These people are unusual and rare.
But I have never before met someone who was so transparent with history, soul, childhood, family. That is an amazing gift. It may be human nature to tend toward snarkiness but when someone has opened their heart in this way, you want to nourish and protect it. Fahbio can be pretty cynical but I see him shielding this family and I know he would do anything for them.
I believe myself to be an open, truthful person, but seeing the person I describe (and her family), I see that I still put on airs and gloss things over for posterity. I hope to learn from her example: to be as educated, as humble, as curious, as charitable, as open as possible. Let’s see if you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks.
What she said
In England, it would seem that the difference between British and Canadian would be a matter of accent. In fact, many terms and idioms are very different. I keep asking for the washroom and am greeted with blank stares. Eventually, I remember, “The toilet?” and all is well. Scones have sultanas (raisins) in them. Lemonade is 7-Up or Sprite. Yesterday, I order iced tea for the girls and the server gave me a blank look and then said, “What? Is that just black tea with ice? I’ve never heard of it.”
When someone says something to us, we have to ask the person to repeat. Often we have to ask them to spell it out. And likewise when we talk. And I would just like to point out that we are all anglophiles and quite up on all these things.
Now, on to Welsh. What can I say? We know nothing about it. I noticed a lot of “coed” stuff around and asked the lovely lady at Tourist Information about it and she told me that it meant “wood/forest”. She also told me that “llan” means parish/church so that “Llangollen” means parish of Saint Gollen, rather than OMG-Lookout-Aquaduct!!!!
Lockkeeper’s cottage (jigsaw puzzle souvenir of our Llangollen Canal days)
I’ve been told that Welsh is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Apparently, the beginnings of words change so that looking things up in the dictionary is impossible. I also know that Welsh is an ancient language. I thought I knew that there were very few native Welsh speakers. But where we are in Northern Wales (and in fact earlier in the month on the English/Northern Welsh border), we hear many people speaking Welsh. I am guessing that we have landed in a Welsh-speaking pocket that is probably not typical of the country. Maybe.
We knew nothing about Wales. Before we came, I knew that the national vegetable was the leek. Or so I had heard.
There is so much here but it is a completely unknown part of the world for North Americans. Who in Canada knows anything about Wales? And BTW, Wales is pretty big.
What is Wales anyways? Sheep. Coal. Slate. Singing. Leeks?
Slate, slate, everywhere
Croeso (Welcome in Welsh)
I have heard many stories about how welcoming the Welsh are. Here is a story told by an old English woman who grew up here in a well-off, artistic family with five children. In the early days in Wales, they had no car. Shopping was done in town by boat. Now the town was across the estuary from home and the estuary tides are dangerous and quick moving. The shop keeper always went down the queue and asked each person if they would allow the family to move to the front as they had very limited time to shop and get back out before the tide went down. And of course, they were always successful in dashing in and out.
Here is our story. We’ve visited many libraries since starting this journey in February: we love books, reading, and libraries. Each time we’ve been treated as oddities or guests. And that is what we expected.
But today, in Harlech, we were given a library card and allowed to take out 13 books. The sweet librarian, who quietly phoned her superior and conferred in Welsh, has no idea what she has given us. After months on the road, our kids are starved for print material. And wifi. And a familiar library in which to browse and relax. The Harlech Library is so small that it is only open for 9 hours per week. It may smell a bit musty, but man, does it deliver. It has a striking view of Harlech castle out the window and as you read, you are lulled by the Welsh conversations taking place around you. Whilst open, it is a hub of the community.
Our new library card
Harlech library hours
We can keep our books for three weeks or renew them for another three weeks. We can use any library in Northern Wales and can return our books 200 miles away if we so choose. And we were given a nice plastic bag in which to carry them. BTW – the wifi was excellent.
We all are young, grow old, and die
We know it as a concept but each person experiences a turning point where they understand that it will ACTUALLY happen to them. For most it happens in middle age but for some it happens in youth. Two years ago, cancer awakened me to my mortality. I felt it to the core of my being. That was the turning point for me. I knew I would die. Somehow. Someway. Somewhere.
Like childbirth, it is amazing how that feeling will always stay with you and yet you can suppress it. This trip has allowed me to connect to a Welsh family and to contemplate the passage of life in a more calm manner.
I hear stories of the five siblings growing up in Wales and I think of my five children. I hear about all the travel of the grown-up siblings and their spouses and I think of myself. I hear current tales of widowhood, dementia, spunk, adventure, anti-establishmentarianism and pray that I might still be here to experience that wild ride for myself.
I have come to the conclusion that some people are born with a low tolerance for adventure. Those seeking the golden handcuffs of a secure, pensioned government job. With these people, I have little affinity.
Many people are not afforded the opportunity to experience travel/adventure but when as adults (at 20 or at 80), they seek it out, or stumble upon it, they embrace it. I love these stories, which to me are mythical. I love nothing more than the tale of someone who has never left their state/province before or has never been on an airplane and then hearing of the adventure from their perspective.
Some people are born to an adventurous life: adventurous by nature or carrying on the activities of their parents. These are the people and stories I relate to best. I have never done anything very adventurous, yet these are the stories that resonate with me.
Boat on estuary, Wales
Can’t do it, wouldn’t miss it
I know now for sure that I have no desire to live by the sea. The damp, mould, rain. But I also know that I need to be by the sea occasionally. It smells wonderful and is ever changing. I could sit all day and watch the tide go in and out. I love beach combing and coastal views. It scares me and fascinates me. I can only handle so much living on the edge of the world.