Saturday, September 29, 2007

Wales, Pt. 2

And we are back.

I had intended here a section about all the great things that increased my love of Wales, and a few things that are cool anyway. But rather than do all that, I will just talk in general about being a Walesophile (or whatever you want to call it).

I have a tattoo on my right arm of Y Draig Goch, the Red Dragon, which is the Welsh emblem, found on their flag, some local beer labels, and assorted other Walesful things. The most common first question regarding this is something along the lines of "What's the deal with the dragon?" The second is usually "So, are you Welsh." It's a natural question, to which my answer is usually "No, I'm just a fan."

Fig. 2a. A dragon on my arm, or an army of my dragon?

No one overtly seems to judge me for this, but then actively criticizing someone's tattoo is rather a faux pas, so they could just be polite. But, reactions in general are usually at least "oh cool," and at most "that's awesome!" The only situation related to the tattoo that has had me at a loss for proper reaction is when I met someone else who wasn't from Wales who had the same tattoo. It was the foreignese/Eurotrash employee of a local cafe; he pointed out my tattoo, said he had the same one, showed me (it was slightly further up his arm than mine, and it also had more friends), and we talked about how Wales is great and we both have visited and loved it. At first I was a little put off just by having the same tattoo as someone else, but once that had sunk in, I enjoyed the encounter quite a bit. Someone else understanding on that level really helped me feel less awkward about my generally Wales-influenced mental state.

I have been trying to teach myself the Welsh language for a couple years now, but it is very slow going. This is not because it is exceptionally hard to learn (the pronunciation is by far the hardest aspect and I've had that down for a while), but because it is hard to learn a language independently and completely removed from other speakers. If anyone wants to learn Welsh with me and speak it to the end of confusing others around us, and essentially having our own secret language in almost any situation, feel free to let me know.

Fig. 2b. Curiously, this is a google image search result for "Welsh language"

I have taken something of a liking as well to Welsh music. Wales' folk music is actually surprisingly different from Irish or Scottish music, bearing some resemblence to mainland northern European folk music in its tonality and flow. The most widely known form of indigenous Welsh music is male vocal choirs. Also popular among people who are me are the Super Furry Animals (who often sing in Welsh) and Tom Jones (who sadly does not). There are two annual festivals in Wales that I positively ache to attend. One is the National Eisteddfod (ay-steth-vod), the largest Welsh cultural event there is. This year it was in Mold; next year it will be in Cardiff. The other is the Fishguard Folk Festival. Fishguard is on the southwest coast of Wales, in Pembrokeshire, and the festival looks to be a sort of Welsh Folklife. Count me in, sirs.

I take interest in Welsh or Wales-themed literature and film. I cheer for Welsh teams when they pop up in sporting events (which is generally just in international rugby, unless I am paying attention to second-tier British football leagues). Sometimes, I bake Welsh cookies and cakes. Basically, two roads diverged in a forest, and I take the one that is Welsh. And that has made all the difference.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, September 27, 2007

UN: Clearly Megalomaniacal Tyrants.

Wales Part 2 is in the works, but it's going to be undercut real quick by a post on a slightly more important matter.

I was listening just now to an NPR report on the international politics surrounding solutions to climate change, and heard the same old predictable things about how there needs to be an international solution, and how the US (emitter of 20% of all greenhouse gases) would absolutely need to be involved for any meaningful results to occur. The Danish and English spoke of how we aren't doing our part, and how there needs to be an internationally agreed upon protocol (maybe if it were discussed and agreed upon in, say, Kyoto...), because self-policing just plain doesn't work in this matter. The American response to this was so typical and yet so stupid, it was almost unbelieveable. The American talking head (I didn't catch who exactly it was) declared, "There is no world government [or] dictator" who can give orders regarding this. In so many words, what he said was "You can't tell us what to do!"

This is really the overarching problem with the American mindset. We will do what we want because you can't tell us not to! This is why we have such rampant environmental problems ("I will drive this ridiculous gas guzzling SUV because you hippies can't tell me not to!") and such terrible suburban sprawl ("I will live where I want! I can afford a bigger house out in the boonies and I can commute with my ridiculous gas guzzling SUV!"). It might even be why we entered Iraq this last time ("You can't tell us NOT to invade this other sovereign nation! Screw you UN, you aren't our real dad!").

David Cross once said of the rhetoric of the war on terror ("The terrorists hate our freedom," etc.), "Are we a nation of eight-year-olds?" I'm starting to think that we are in fact 16 year olds. Which might be a lot worse.

Labels: ,

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Wales, Pt. 1

As many of you are aware, there's one thing I'm into in an almost over-the-top and generally unexplained fashion. That thing is Wales. After having been questioned so much on my fascination, I've done some thinking about it, and shall herein attempt to illuminate for you all a bit of the history and reasoning behind me and my Wales fixation.

Background and Initial Curiosity

Fig. 1a. Wales is well known for being full of Sheep. This is not an inaccurate characterization.

Of course always aware of a place called Wales, and that it was part of the United Kingdom, I was all the same unfazed more or less by the existence of the tiny country. The first two things I can remember being accutely aware of as particularly Welsh are Tolkien's inspiration by the Welsh language as a base from which to build Sindarin Elvish and an obscure bowed lyre instrument called a crwth. I saw one on display at a stringed instrument store and was told a bit of its history -- there were traditionally 24 songs written for it that all crwth players knew, and it was popular before the much more versatile fiddle was introduced Britain -- and its function -- it had two bowed-and-fingered courses and two plucked drone strings. I loved obscure things, I loved interesting instrument designs, and I certainly loved words where "W" was a vowel. But, for some time, I learned nothing else new that was Welsh.

Fig. 1b. The crwth: funny looking and hard to pronounce

The next step came when I decided to plan a brief tour of mainland Britain, and wondered what parts I should visit. I consulted assorted travel guides and general facts about the island, and decided that this trip would primarily to Wales and Western England. While I learned a good bit about England in these studies, the facts that caught my eyes most were those about Wales. The literature focused more on North Wales than South, so I didn't learn especially a lot in advance about the latter. But I did learn a few phrases in the language ("Bore da" means hello, "diolch" means thanks, so forth), a brief history of King Edward I's conquest of the Welsh and subsequent building of many castles, a few facts about the region and national park of Snowdonia, and the general demeanor of the rural, sheep-filled north versus the largely urban and suburban south.

Plans for the trip solidified, and I decided to spend two days in the south and two days in the north, selecting a town from each with a castle in it and about which I had at least some information to go on. Cardiff, the capital and first city, was chosen for the south, and Conwy, a tiny and somewhat touristy village, for the north.

The Trip

Cardiff was the second city I visited in the UK, after Bath, and not counting Gatwick airport as visiting London (it's just an airport, you see). I got off the train in the central city and hopped a Welsh cab for the hostel at which I had booked a bed, and was immediately struck by a gorgeous city that reminded me instantly of my own beloved Seattle, especially the green and greatly walkable neighborhood in which I was staying. Unfortunately, while I was in Cardiff I was still figuring out just how to travel, and wasn't quite good at it yet, so I didn't enjoy it as much as I might have, or meet as many great locals as I might have (one part of the problem is, having been a 20-year-old American at the time, I was not used to being in public houses, and thus was not good at striking up conversations there). But my impressions of Cardiff were this: scenic, friendly, and easily maneuvered around. I also remember there being a lot of very, very attractive women in Cardiff.

Fig. 1c. The buses even look kind of like Metro

Having seen all I could schedule myself to see of Cardiff, I took a train (via a brief stop to visit a friend in Birmingham) to the North. The train went to Llandudno, from which I caught a cab to a bed and breakfast just outside the old castle town of Conwy. The cab ride, by the way, was two or three miles and cost all of 2 pounds. So there.

I remember several things about Conwy that made me truly happy. The first is how nice the Bed and Breakfast I stayed at was. There I got the two best nights' sleep I had gotten sleep I had gotten thus far on my entire trip, the lady who ran it was very nice, and both mornings I got delicious British breakfasts with vegetarian sausage and incredible grilled mushrooms. The other things had much more to do with the general character of the town. Everyone was incredibly friendly. The lady at the post office saw my last name on the traveller's checks I was cashing, and talked quite a bit about how she might have known someone with the last name Clauss to have been around Conwy at some point. The guy who ran the shop by the castle that sold replica medieval weaponry and armor was enthusiastic and helpful. The two middle eastern dudes who ran the fish and chips shop on by the quay were extremely friendly, if impleaceably shady. Most memorable of all, though were the people at the George and Dragon pub.

My second evening in Conwy, I decided to go pub-hopping. The first I don't recall the name of, but I went early enough that it was empty save a gossip of French teenagers with whom I had a long and broken conversation in English and French (and something in between). The second, I believe it was called something like the Post Master or Postman, was nice and would have been enjoyable had I been better about socializing myself. But after a couple drinks, I left in favor of a third pub, the George and Dragon. The folks there were of a much older set than the other two, and also of a much friendlier manner. They introduced themselves (though I'll be damned if I can remember any names; I was pretty tipsy at this point), asked about my national origin, and we discussed our common dislike of George Bush and Tony Blair. Eventually, I left the pub happy, and stumbled back out of the castle walls to my comfortable bed.

Fig. 1d. It is important to emphasize that I think North Wales is fucking gorgeous

The next morning, I left Conwy and Wales in favor of the disappointing English town of Chester, taking with me memories, pictures, a miniature replica claymore, and accidentally my room key. I haven't been back to Wales since but I hope to return as soon as possible at this point.

Next time: Learning more and yearning more.

Labels: , ,