My first year in Wales was awful. Ranked among my thus far 38.5 years on this planet, I would say it was the second worst of my life -- edged out of the top spot by my fourth year in Wales. I am willing to bet that the third worst year of my life also took place in Wales, which sort of begs the question as to why the hell I am still living here. But I'll get to that in a moment.
Despite it being so generally awful, there were in that first year some highlights. One of which being the day Mormons showed up at the door with a TV.
My ex-wife was (and presumably still is) a member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, and had found a welcome in the nearby Rhiwbina ward soon after our arrival in Cardiff. I am thankful she did. I doubt very much that we would have survived that first year on our own.
For those of you playing along at home, if you are considering a move to the Old World, be prepared to suffer at least 8 months of unemployment. Jobs are a hell of a lot harder to find in Europe than in the United States. Hitherto our moving to the United Kingdom, the longest my ex-wife or I had ever gone without work was just two weeks. Having arrived Cardiff in early July, we were by late October in dire straits.
Most of the money we had saved up before moving was now gone. Primarily we were living off my student loans and her minimum wage earnings from a part-time gig at Starbucks. We ate a lot of rice; I can't now remember a meal that didn't pad the stomach with rice. We didn't have a car. Getting groceries meant walking 2 miles to the Tesco and stuffing everything into backpacking rucksacks.
We couldn't afford to go out; we couldn't even afford a television. Meanwhile, I had learned that I was in way over my head in university, so my life became one of attending lectures and thereafter coming home to lock myself away in the study. At night I would surface just long enough to wolf down a rice-heavy meal, then disappear again until well after midnight -- collapsing into bed with eyes hurting from staring at Welsh dictionaries. My ex-wife would spend the evenings reading in silence.
Her respite was attending church. Or "chapel," as they call it here in Wales. Going to "church" usually implies attending Church of England services. Not that many people here do either these days. And to that end, LDS meetinghouses are few and far between. Cardiff, being the largest city in Wales, has two but neither were particularly close to us. So, members of my ex-wife's ward would give her a lift.
Stoic almost to a fault, I doubt very much that she ever complained of her condition -- thousands of miles away from family, poor, highly qualified but reduced to serving coffee (a substance barred by her religion), effectively ignored by her academically swamped husband, left to spend her free time alone and reading in silence -- but no doubt the members of her ward were able to pick up on her unhappiness. So, one night, amid the rainy creeping darkness of October, a group of them showed up unannounced and armed with gifts.
There was the TV, of course -- a 27-inch-screen beast that one of the congregation had had lying around spare. He insisted upon giving it to us because, he joked, he didn't want us to miss seeing Wales playing in the international rugby matches that take place each November. More touching, though, was the huge care package the group had brought with them. It was full of foodstuffs like canned goods, pasta, rice (more rice!), and a few jars of Caro, which is what British Mormons drink instead of tea (which is also against the LDS Word of Wisdom). But also there were a number of Welsh items: local jam, honey and chocolates, a little stuffed dragon, and a tea towel featuring a map of Wales.
A few years later came that aforementioned fourth year in this country. That was the year that put the "ex" in ex-wife. Our lives had gotten better, but they hadn't gotten good. And all the years of struggle had worn us down and made us miserable. In particular, both of us had developed a very deep, angry bitterness toward Wales. My ex-wife wisely responded to this by leaving the country. I still don't really understand why I stayed.
Ultimately, we are both much better off these days, and staying here was the right decision for me. But if you've read this blog for very long you will almost certainly have picked up that much of my old bitterness remains. I don't want to make myself angry by trying to express just how deep that well goes, but suffice to say it is a motherhugger. And it is so intense as to be a hindrance.
I mean, uhm, I'm a pretty lonely dude; I don't have a lot of Welsh friends. You could count them all on one hand and still have enough fingers to hold a cup of tea and a Kit-Kat. There's a reason for that: my attitude doesn't make me easy to befriend. If I knew someone who was anywhere near as critical of the United States as I am of Wales I sure as hell wouldn't be his pal. I understand this logically, as well as the fact that it is utterly ridiculous to be so emotionally hurt by a place, but I struggle to overcome it.
Quite some time ago I learned through the grapevine that my ex-wife had actually returned to the UK after our divorce, for a visit. Apparently she had come expressly to "make peace with Wales," keen to bury and move on from her own negative emotions toward this little wet nation. It's a good idea, and something I have tried to do myself, though without much success.
I think that is partially because of how I've gone about it. I haven't left. You can't really "move on" if you don't move. Instead, it occurs to me that if you're going to stay in a place, it's probably better to try to rekindle the affection that brought you there in the first place.
Meanwhile, I have noticed that my overall level of rage toward all things Welsh has decreased considerably ever since I got a motorcycle. (You were wondering when a motorcycle was going to fit into this, weren't you?) And I have thought that perhaps one way of getting over my bitterness toward Wales is to get to know it better, to invest some time trying to remind myself why I wanted to live here, why I was desperate to call this place my home.
And here's where we get to the point of all this. I still have that tea towel given to me by Mormons back in 2006. As I say, it's primary image is a map of Wales. Though there are also a few drawings of notable buildings, such as Harlech Castle and the Swansea Guildhall...
"Wait. The Swansea Guildhall? What the hell is so special about that? It's just an office building used by the council. Who would list that as a tourist attraction?"
That was the thought that came to me recently as I found myself actually looking at the tea towel for the first time in a number of years (rather than simply using it to dry dishes, or watching Jenn accidentally set it on fire whilst cooking, as she does with most of our tea towels). And upon further examination I saw that little of this representation of Wales made sense. The map lists some 66 cities, towns and villages in Wales, along with one national park –– those being:
- Builth Wells
- Merthyr Tydfil
- New Quay
- Newcastle Emlyn
- Newport (South Wales)
- Newport (Pembrokeshire)
- Port Talbot
- Saint David's
Effectively this is just a random collection of places. There is no rhyme or reason here. This is certainly not a map of places that you should or necessarily would want to visit. I mean, Borth –– a city that Morrissey described as a "seaside town that they forgot to bomb" –– makes the list, but Hay-on-Wye, home to one of the world's best known literature festivals, does not. The thoroughly unspectacular town of Barry is listed, but tourist honey pot Abergavenny isn't. The map mentions Port Talbot for Pete's sake. The thinking behind the selection process here is impossible for me to grasp.
But, see, in its randomness, its that-doesn't-make-a-damned-bit-of-sense-ness, this tea towel map is so very, very Welsh. That is such a Welsh thing to do. Welsh people are often clueless about what might make Wales appealing; its part of their charm.
So, from this ridiculous tea-towel-based map I came up with a ridiculous idea: to visit every single one of these places. Because why not? Any excuse to ride a motorcycle is a good one, and maybe this excuse can help change the way I think of Wales. Maybe riding to pointless corners like Ammanford and Knighton, and, more importantly all the spaces in between, can cure me of my Welsh hate.
It shouldn't be too hard. Wales is a tiny place; in the case of all the locations on the map, I can ride there and back within a day. The only trick is hitting these places in good weather. After all, if your stated goal is one of improving your impression of Wales, definitely don't go visiting places in the rain.