Tuesday, October 17, 2006

17 October 2006

I'm from the United States. Depending on my mood when you ask me, I am from Texas or I am from Minnesota. Right now, though, I am living in Cardiff, Wales, and studying the 2,600-year-old language that is Welsh.

I don't really know why I am here doing this -- I don't have any family or personal connection to Wales. A few years ago, I was bored and I found a website that taught Welsh. Now I'm here; 30 years old and struggling to see and understand a culture that is at once familiar and utterly confusing.

The trains here in Cardiff are laughable by even U.S. standards. I like to imagine the entire company is run by one of those friends everyone has who is a likeable alcoholic -- he tries to do a good job, enough that it pains you to really complain, but everything he does is substandard.

My train to Cathays, where the university is located, was delayed by about 10 minutes and then so fully packed that it was like a city centre pub on Saturday night. The large breasted woman pressed against me on the short journey from Radyr to Cathays smelled lovely.

Welsh women tend to have larger breasts than the women I knew back in Minnesota. They should put that fact in the tourist literature: "Wonderful Wales! More castles than any sane person could ever want to visit and lovely large-breasted women!"

The train cuts through generally unexciting territory. From cow fields along the lazy River Taff down through middle-class homes, past one of Cardiff's numerous chav hotspots, over the A48, past student housing and into the heart of campus.

The nature of my arriving in this country to do what I'm doing has resulted in my becoming something of a darling in the Welsh-language media. So, while I was almost late to my 9 a.m. class, the camera crew was not. I am the focus of a documentary that will come out in the spring, and they were there for the obligatory "here's Chris trying to pretend he understands what the hell is going on in his lectures" shot. I felt bad for the cute girl with a bad cough who was sitting next to me. She smelled of the previous night's booze, so I was pretty sure she didn't want to be on camera.

I probably understood about 60 to 70 percent of the lecture (all of my lectures are conducted entirely in Welsh -- cell phones and flatulence are more readily tolerated than English), which was focused on the history of the Eisteddfod. A word that's impossible for my father to pronounce, Eisteddfod is at the heart of Welsh culture. It is basically a competition of singing, dancing, art, and literature. Other cultures have similar events, but here IT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER. I went to the National Eisteddfod this year, in August, and I didn't get it. I generally try to keep this fact to myself. As a Welsh learner, my lack of interest in Eisteddfod is equivalent to training to be a priest but thinking that John the Baptist wasn't all that important.

Afterward, sans camera crew, I tried to keep my head from exploding in my Welsh grammar course. I feel so stupid in my courses. They are like The Machine in "Princess Bride," but instead of sucking away years of my life, they rob me of all self-confidence.

As if my brain weren't scrambled enough, the class that comes straight after for me is Spanish grammar. But Spanish has become a respite in my world of Welsh sub-understanding. It is the academic form of candy for me right now.

Buoyed by the confidence that I am better at beginner Spanish than the 18-year-old from Somerset who sat next to me, I then returned to the Welsh-language department to do a "Chris talks about how he feels about his lectures" interview with the camera crew. They've been following me around on and off since May, and I've been generally unhappy with my past few interviews. I know the fact that I am heartbroken and homesick comes through. That might make for a good story, but I am media savvy enough to know that it will feel very embarrassing when I see it in several months time.

I ate lunch in a building on campus that only international students seem to know about. It's always me and a load of Asians eating in the building's cafe, which serves a sufferable curry, naan and bottle of Coke for £2.90. Then I went to the library to try to make sense of a Welsh poem.

Poetry has never made sense to me, but when you add the fact that it is in Welsh, esoteric, and focused on a culture that I still don't understand at all, it becomes the intellectual equivalent of a spinal tap. I spent two hours trying to draw something from it before getting together with a group of girls from my literature class to write up an assessment.

Poets are revered here, whereas in the U.S., even well-read people would be hard-pressed to name a single living poet. So, people who were born and raised in Welsh culture are better suited to poetry.

I feel bad for the three young pretty girls who are stuck in a group with me. They are all native Welsh speakers and they probably understand this as well as I understand professional wrestling and rodeo (I would prefer to discuss Triple H over Twm Morys any day). But they are all very nice, and were quick to point out to one another the contribution I had made -- figuring out that the not-in-the-dictionary word "amenio" means "to say amen" -- and we managed to put something together.

I took the 18:43 train from Cathays to Radyr, then the 19:04 from Radyr to Danescourt. The train heading south was packed with people heading to the Cardiff vs. Southampton match that Cardiff City would eventually win 1-0. I was home in time to watch "EastEnders."

I am allegedly a mature and intelligent adult of proper breeding, but I find myself obsessed with keeping track of what's happening in the long-running soap "EastEnders." If I could have one wish granted, it would be this: I would show up at the Queen Vic and say hello to Peggy in Welsh, then she would throw me out, using the phrase "sling yer 'ook!"

For dinner, I ate lamb stew that my wife had left cooking in a crock pot. She has a master's degree but the only work she can find here is at the Starbucks. It is demeaning and tedious and they have her working stupid hours, but she is beautiful and wonderful and keeps at it. She is always tired when I see her, and I feel a terrible guilt that she is serving coffee to self-absorbed city workers while I spend my day reading poetry and looking at pretty girls.

This is our life. Tomorrow will be somewhat similar.


Anonymous said...

Everyone tells me that the first 3 years in a new country are the hardest. Then, they tell me to hang in there. Unfortunately for you, after your 3 years are up, you'll have just one year left in school. I sure hope that year is worth it.

Hang in there!

Chris Cope said...

That's amusing, mab -- the first three years in a country are the hardest. It reminds of someone I was talking to just before I got married who told me: 'Well, the first four years are the most difficult.'

'How long have you been married?' I asked.

'Four years.'

Anonymous said...

Glad to see you're trying something different and sampling the land where I was born. Yours is a very interesting blog, and I'll be back. Though I'm not sure about the comment on the size of we Welsh women's boobs. I thought we didn't quite measure up in that department, especially compared with US women. But who am I to question a man in their one area of expertise? :)