Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Reasons to love Cardiff

I don't really have a list of reasons to love Cardiff, perhaps I will make one some day. Somewhere at the top of that list will be the fact that it's not this place.

The picture was taken by a former co-worker of mine, Maggie, who asks the question "What city is this??" rhetorically. It is a picture of downtown Minneapolis. The frustrating aspect is that in this city that serves as the cultural heart of the only state to not vote for Reagan in 1984, there is massive (and, let's be honest, tacky) Americana propaganda and a Rush Limbaugh billboard framed by the omnipresence of Borders and the Target Corp.

I am thinking of putting this picture on a T-shirt, with the words, "Not The America I Grew Up In," across the top.

For everyone who's never been to the Twin Cities, this picture probably looks like exactly what you would expect to see from an American Midwest downtown -- wide, relatively empty dusty streets, minimal pedestrians and unabashed conservatism. But for those of us who know the place, it's incredibly depressing -- it's a picture that makes me want to go out into the garden and hug the sweet Welsh earth.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Pontcanna Barbers

Here's my top tip for getting your hair cut in another country: just accept whatever they give you.

The fact is, over the past several decades British people have been getting haircuts that are on the whole slightly different than those that the majority of Americans have been getting. So, if you go in and be very specific in asking them to cut your hair just like they used to atGreat Clips, your instructions will be diligently ignored and you will end up with something that is almost but not entirely unlike the thing you asked for. So, your best bet is to instead focus on finding a place where you like the people who are cutting your hair in whatever fashion they please.

When I lived in Portsmouth, I always went to a barbershop that was located in the train station. The two guys running the place had thick Mancunian ("from Manchester," FTYPAH*) accents, so I generally never understood a word of what they were saying. But they were friendly enough and they seemed to think I was a comedy genius for once having made fun of Thunder and they only charged £5.

In Cardiff, my place of choice is Pontcanna Barbers on Cathedral Road. Every time I go there, I feel good for the rest of the day.

It's your basic old-school single-room barber shop, with four black and shiny silver barber chairs on one side of the room and a row of wooden seats for waiting customers on the other side. Scattered on the seats are always the day's tabloids, all opened to the sports section. It would simply be some sort of weird throwback but for the all-female staff. Dressed in all black, they give the whole thing that sort of hip feel that Gen-Xers are so desperate to achieve in everything they do. Except that here it feels authentic.

I don't know if anyone in Wales uses the phrase Gen-Xers, and of those who know what it means, I'd wager that very few of them give a toss (FTYPAH: "very few care"). A good thing about Britain is that once you move beyond university level age differences and the application of generational titles tend to fade away.

The barbers use straight-edge razors, rather than clippers, to trim edges, which strikes me as particularly hardcore. And they use talcum powder! They use a little horsehair brush to put talcum powder on your neck when they're done cutting your hair. I don't think I've been to a barbershop that does that since I was 5 years old and got dragged to my grandfather's barber shop. I keep waiting for them to give me a piece of Dubble Bubble gum.

What really sells it, though, is the fact that they act totally surprised when you give them a tip and they always say goodbye. I'm a simple and sappy man, I know, but having them all chime "bye, love, take care," as I'm leaving is the ego equivalent of suddenly stepping into brilliant sunshine**.

*Bryan suggested I shorten the phrase "for those of you playing along at home" to an acronym. I think this one works best because it can be pronounced: "fitty-pah."

**In an effort to sound all intellectual and stuff, I was going to reference Robert Frost's "Dust of Snow." I had always interpreted it to be a poem about how tiny things that can shake you out of extreme misery, but I am shit with poetry, so I could be way off.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Putting Eric's dog-dressing habits to shame

This is Matt's dog. Much to my surprise, I actually have three pictures of Matt on my Flickr account, but none are such that they would be of much use in picking him out of a police line-up. That's OK, though, because I'm not making fun of Matt, I'm making fun of his dog.

At least, I assume this is his dog; he has several pictures of it running around looking happy on the beach. In this picture, of course, she looks miserable. The look on her little doggy face says to me: "If I had hands, I would be using them to strangle you."

And rightly so -- look what Matt's done to her. At first glance, it appeared to me that he had dressed his dog as a matador. In fact, according to the caption, he has dressed her as a geisha.

I am as big a fan of animal cruelty as any other red-blooded American, but costuming some poor animal as a Japanese prostitute just seems to me to be taking things one step too far. It's just so, so wrong (and yet so, so amusing).

The only positive about this is that Eric suddenly seems like slightly less of a goof for dressing his dog.

Shocked. Shocked, I say

Whoa. You mean to tell me that trains running to Cardiff were late?! It boggles the mind that such a thing could happen.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Let's all laugh at Eric's dog

MoondoggyAs the three regular readers of this blog will already know, my best friend, Eric, has a proud tradition of sending me pictures of his dog. And I have a proud tradition of making fun of him for doing so.

Now he's sent me a picture of Bear looking like this. She is biggest geek in all of dogdom. OK, chwarae teg*, I may be partially to blame for her already having been a bit awkward in the dog hierarchy; I taught her Welsh. But this satellite dish is doing her no favours. Bear will never get asked to the dog prom now.

The more amusing picture, however, is this one, where Bear's body is missing. If I weren't so incredibly lazy, I would Photoshop that picture to make it appear that her head has been mounted above some rich chap's fireplace, next to a rhino. As is, the picture has a certain Salvador Dali quality to it. All it needs now is a naked woman, melting in the distance.

(22:52) UPDATE: Weirdo has just sent me this picture that brilliantly interprets the above-mentioned Photoshop (the weird deer picture is what sells it). I'm glad to see that, like me, she's really working hard to earn her university degree.

*"Fair enough" in Welsh

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Holding On Until Spring

My latest column is out. With references to 1800s British government policy, vinyl records and the Polyphonic Spree, it goes without saying that I've completely missed the teenager demographic with this one. And I am just waiting for someone to send me a nasty e-mail for having insulted the Texas public education system.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The happiest chav

Every once in a while in my daily travels of this fine city I run into a bloke with an Eminem-style haircut who's missing a front tooth. He is most often to be seen wearing a dark blue shell suit ("track suit" for those of you playing along at home) and talking on one of two mobile phones that he carries everywhere. Most of the time he's having a conversation with someone who doesn't understand a word he's saying: "No, right, I gottih inuh pos. Wha? I say I gottit in nuh pos. In the post. The package I got. No, I got it in the post. No, mate. I got the package IN THE POST."

The way he speaks, stands, smokes, walks and dresses, he is as chav as the pope is Catholic. But here's the thing: he's a really friendly fellow. He is the happiest, friendliest chav that ever there was.

Usually I see him on the train or bus and he will say hello and have a quick chat with me about the weather. Then he will talk to old people about what they're doing that day, then the bus driver about sport. It always baffles me how congenial and strangely likeable he is.

I have decided, in fact, that he is the chav Jesus.

On the train this morning, some ass-hat came charging onto the train at Ninian Park in that "I'm really angry and I want everyone to know because somehow that makes me a man" way, and sat down across from the Chavenly Host.

"Rugby weather, innt?" said the chav, attempting to strike up a conversation.
"Fuck you. Where the fuck are you from?" said angry man.
"Here? Where's fuckin' 'ere?"
"You're fucking (wearing a Manchester United Football Club logo on your shell suit)."
"Me mum's from Manchester."
"You're not from fucking Manchester, then."
"Me mum is."

At about this point I thought: "Oh, this is one of those moral tests to see whether I will pitch in or whether I will sit back and do nothing, thus allowing society to spiral further out of control until Britain becomes some kind of rainy Darfur."

So, I decided that if angry man attempted to physically attack the happiest chav, I would do the right and decent thing and drive my keys into his face as hard as I could.

And where was Craigy Bach?! The Conservatives talk tough, but when it comes to defending good-natured chavs on trains they're happy to leave the dirty work to the Americans. As usual.

Although, I have to admit that I was able to come to my decision so easily in part because the happiest chav is quite large -- about 6-foot-7. It's a good bet that if angry man had attempted to start a fight, he would have been unconscious before I arrived with my handful of keys.

This is a fact that may have occurred to angry man, as well, because in the time it took me to decide on what to do he had mellowed almost completely; he and the happiest chav were chatting amiably about their predictions for the Manchester United - Reading replay match. The happiest chav hadn't raised his voice, he had just carried on being amiable and had managed to defuse the situation. It was a moment of magic.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The height of self-interest

As The Editor (I like that he always signs comments that way, as if he is a super hero who doesn't want us to know his secret identity) correctly identified Wednesday, the URL of this blog has changed.

It is now, officially, although the old address still works. I openly admit that buying my name in URL form is a lame thing to have done, and I encourage you to take the piss about it ("make fun of me" for those of you playing along at home). Although, if you do, I will storm out of the room like Preston did on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, or like when Eric hit me in the face with a piece of candy at Angie Luukkonen's house.

In a world where there are several free blog providers, there is no particularly good reason for me to have paid somebody so that I can use my own name. It doesn't make it right, but here's why I did:

Despite several years of consistent failure, I still have dreams of being the sort of author that people would actually give money to. Keen readers will note that just on Wednesday I was yammering on about plans to write a book this summer. If I ever do get something published, I think having my own site would become valuable in promoting myself so as to be able to dupe a publisher into paying me to write another book, and on and on.

That bastard Kiwi has already claimed, and is currently owned by Eun Cho of North Bergen, NJ. What the hell he's doing with my name, I do not know. Perhaps he is banking on my success even more than I am, hoping to extort shit loads of money from a future successful me. Well, you're shit out of luck, Cho, because I am now the true and rightful owner of my name in domain.

In the two months (or so) that I've had Google AdSense I have earned a whopping $11.24, which isn't exactly going to buy me a new house, but does cover the cost of the name.

The domain name is about all that will be changing at the moment -- I'll continue to use Blogger as my provider for the foreseeable future. Obviously if I had a published book I would want a more coherent website, but that's a way off. Even without that, though, I have long had visions of better incorporating my multiple blogs under a single banner. That would require money, which, at the current rate, advertising is unlikely to provide (it is against the rules for me to tell you to click on the ads -- cough, cough).

When I can be arsed, the URL for my Welsh blog will change to, following the trend of my (almost never used) Spanish blog (so rarely updated that I refuse to link to it). I may then create my own sort of Welcome page that then directs to my multiple blogs -- this depends on available time and my ability to come up with a good splash page (I am thinking of stealing Shooty the Death Panda as my logo*). So, uhm, it will probably never happen.

*That, or something incorporating a pint glass.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Dydd Mercher

Thanks to everyone for the encouragement, in relation to my whinging post from Monday. I am always making vows to myself that I am going to stop complaining, but I'm apparently not very good at keeping promises.

It was a brilliant day here in Europe's youngest capital city* -- the sun was shining and I threw open the windows as soon as I got home -- so my mood was a little better than it has been over the past few weeks. I remain in over my head in university and my feelings about that manifest themselves in numerous ways. But today felt alright.

My Spanish courses are usually an ego boost because I have that inherent understanding of the language that comes from so many years of thinking all kinds of naughty things about Daisy Fuentes. My translation teacher inadvertently provided me with a good name for a band: The False Friends. Alternately, of course, one could go with Los Amigos Falsos.

Without any Welsh courses to cripple my good spirits, I was free for the day by 1 p.m. I walked from campus down Museum Avenue along Cathays Park and past City Hall on my way to City Centre. I decided I will probably take my parents down the same route when they come to visit in early April. It runs past some of Cardiff's nicer buildings and then takes the most posh route possible into City Centre -- the one that goes past the Cardiff Hilton and Slug and Lettuce pub (that's right, bitches -- we've got a Hilton and a Slug and Lettuce).

I bought a pasty from Cornish Bakehouse (the pasties there are so good that they're almost worth the trip to Cardiff in and of themselves [depending on where you're coming from, obviously]) and walked down to the temporary location of the Central Library to return a Mihangel Morgan novel that I had only managed to read 22 pages of.

As I was walking, I thought about what I had expected of Cardiff before coming here. For some reason, I had expected it would be a lot like Dublin, which is a city that is also not what I had expected.

In another classic example of my sheltered American upbringing causing me to have hilarious misconceptions about places, subconsciously some part of me was expecting Dublin to be a gritty Hogarthian London where all the blokes wore leather jackets, like Brad Pitt in "The Devil's Own," and I would run the risk of getting punched in the face for being a Methodist.

Dublin is gritty; the River Liffey, which runs through the city, is charcoal black. Along its banks there are several posts with life preservers that one could toss to a poor soul that has fallen in; I think those life preservers should be replaced with sniper rifles. Because if someone's fallen into the Liffey, the best thing you can do for them is just put them out of their misery. But the feel of the city is actually very European and cosmopolitan.

It's got its fair share of chavs ("skangers" in Dublin terminology, I think), but it's got some really nice bits, as well. On the night that the child bride and I met up with Donal, Elisa, Isobel, Linus, and others, I was struck by the fact that as we walked through the city centre there were loads of buskers ("street musicians" for those of you playing along at home) about. There were enough people wandering around at 11 p.m., and enough of them weren't drunken assclowns, that it was actually viable for people to sit there and sing James Morrison tunes to passers-by.

Some part of me decided then that Cardiff, Europe's Youngest Capital City, would be similar. But not so much. It's a little cleaner and brighter than Dublin, but unless fully intoxicated chavs from Pontypridd are your idea of European culture, it lacks somewhat. That doesn't stop it from trying, though. It's got its Cafe Quarter and Bay, and all throughout City Centre there are statues reminiscent of those in Dublin. But whereas Dublin gets a statue of a woman with an amazing rack, we get a bloke with fucking huge fists**.

A new Cardiff Central Library is being built at the moment, so it temporarily exists in a load of white worksite buildings. Never having gone to the old Central Library, I can't say for sure, but this temporary site seems to only contain a "best of" from the library's collection. As a result, I was unable to find any history or criticism of Académie française, which I need to form the crux of a paper I'm writing in Welsh -- the outline of which is due on Monday. Sadly, the university libraries are just as useless (or, perhaps there search engines are just as useless). After paying 48p for the pleasure of having held on to Morgan's Dirgel Ddyn for too long, I headed to Cardiff Central train station.

Platform 7 faces the afternoon sun, so I took a certain joy in having to wait 20 minutes for the train to Danescourt. I just sat on a bench and stared out across the Brains brewery and tried to forget about all the things that are frustrating me these days. I thought about summer and how Platform 7 is packed on hot days -- full of charming British youth heading off to Barry Island to drink cider and swear unnecessarily and serve as the living defeat of any argument that Britons are more cultured than anyone. Summer seems like it will be a long time; almost four months of my not being required to do anything. I am planning to write a book in that time, but I may just spend four months weeping -- this semester is challenging and I know things are only going to get more difficult.

Of course, I do myself no favours by taking a several hours to write really long blog posts...

*Like Americans, the Welsh enjoy coming up with ridiculous phrases that are supposed to sound impressive, but aren't really. The way that Minnesota is "the Land of 10,000 Lakes," Cardiff is "Europe's Youngest Capital City." In both cases, the statements are blatantly untrue. Minnesota has more than 10,000 lakes and Cardiff's becoming a capital city in 1955 easily predates the capital cities created by the break up of the Soviet Union.

**We love fists.

Monday, February 12, 2007


I've been thinking a lot today about roots. In hyper-regionalist Wales, the questions of where you come from, where you belong, and what you are, are ever-present and all important. These are questions that are underlined for me by the fact that I am married to someone whose religion emphasises family connections. These things expose the weakness in my composition.

I was born in Texas, my parents were born in Texas, and my grandparents were born in Texas -- that is what I know. That is about all I know. I know history that can be collected from living memory. If you were to ask me or my brother where our family comes from, we would tell you Ireland not necessarily because it's true (although, I know that at least one family member came from Northern Ireland) but because it sounds cool to us and there isn't a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

I was born in Texas; I was raised in four cities: Austin, Irving, Houston, and Bloomington. That resulted in five different homes and six different schools before I reached 18 years old. And in adulthood, I have yet to live in the same home for more than two years. I bounce. I have always bounced. There are positives and negatives.

My dad and I are both the sort of people who enjoy hearing ourselves say things that we think are philosophical, so we talked a lot in the months that he and I would drive to work together, before Rachel and I left for Wales. We talked on several occasions about these questions of who and what and where.

Before my family left Austin, when I was 4 years old, my father discussed the move with his pastor, who offered a gardening analogy: Sometimes you can move a tree and it will take root and flourish; sometimes, though, it just won't root. My dad sometimes feels that he might have made one move too many, that Minnesota holds no strong claim to his soul other than the fact that it is where he and his wife happen to have jobs and where his youngest son still lives and where his oldest son keeps coming back to.

His hope for me, and my belief and hope for myself, back in those days of darting along the 494, was that Wales would become my place -- this would be the place where I would take root and flourish, where I would feel solidity and belonging.

A lifetime of bouncing, though, makes me impatient. As I understand more subtleties, I feel more isolated. These people, so firmly rooted in this place, struggle to comprehend and I struggle to convey. When I say something, people hear it through a sort of filter created by their impressions of what an American is, what an American means when he or she says something, how an American thinks, and what an American doesn't know. It's a problem made acute by my inability to communicate dynamically in this language I've chosen to throw so much money and time at. I stutter things out and people guess at what I'm trying to say, using the American filter as a guide.

Maybe I'm one of those trees that just won't root. Maybe this isn't the right soil. Maybe I just need to give it time. How long does it take roots to grow? I can't remember ever feeling more frustrated. People will say this is all just homesickness, but where is home?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Snow days

Inclement weather brings people togetherIf you read pretty much any blog based in the UK you'll know by now that we got snow this week. Those of you playing along at home are thinking: "OK, and?"

That's it. We got snow. Dear Lord, we got snow. In Minnesota, this would have been the type of snow one could knock off a windshield ("windscreen" for those of you playing along over here) with one hand; most people wouldn't even bother to put on their gloves. Here, though, snow is a big thing that means locking all the doors and refusing to go to work. On Thursday and Friday, Rachel was told to stay home from work*, allowing plenty of time for reading and Yahtzee. I foolishly wasted my time by attempting to go to classes.

The train tracks run just a few yards from the house and I'm able to hear the trains when they shuffle by. On Thursday, much to my surprise, they were running on time (when I say "on time" what I mean, of course, is "not more than 20 minutes late"), so I thought perhaps that the rest of Cardiff would be up and running and headed off to classes.

The snow made for an unusually jubilant mood amongst the Arriva's regular sufferers passengers. In the picture above, the Danescourt platform looks abandoned, but there are, in fact, 6-8 people squeezed into the shelter on the right -- all of them laughing and chatting, in contrast to the usual mode of staring bleakly at the tracks.

Of the four lectures I had on Thursday, three were cancelled. On campus the kids were walking as if gravity could no longer be trusted -- holding onto railings, walls, trees, and just about anything else in an effort to stay put. Walking by them made me feel as if I was in that Monty Python sketch where they attempt to ascend the high street ("main street" for those of you playing along at home).

And I am apparently one of less than a dozen Cardiff University students who have managed to figure out that when it's cold, you should put on a coat. There were a shockingly large number of boneheaded fellas attempting to walk around in their pansy pastel polo shirts (it is fashionable at the moment for guys to wear light yellow, light blue and pink shirts -- I'm not buying. It is also stupidly popular to wear clothing with Americana things written on it, e.g., "Joe's Cafe." The other day, I really did see a bloke wearing a shirt that said simply: "CENTERFIELDER"), their hands shoved in their pockets, desperately trying to pretend to one another that the first stages of frostbite weren't setting in.

*Remember kids, you want to study extra hard so that one day you can grow up to work for the National Public Health Service; they treat their employees rather well.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Still my favourite lyrics

"They can bug my phone, peep around my home, they'll only see you and me making love inside."

Prince. Weirder than a monkey ballet is that dude, but I can't help but like him.

She's lying

The other day, for reasons unexplained, the following announcement got stuck on repeat in the train from Danescourt to Queen Street:

"An out-seat service of light refreshment is available on this train, serving a selection of hot and cold drinks and snacks. A steward will be passing through the train shortly."

This was repeated nonstop for approximately eight minutes. This was accompanied first by the conductor shouting out from the back, "She's lying! Pay no mind to that," and then several minutes of banging noises as he tried to figure out how to shut off the tannoy ("public address system"" for those of you playing along at home).

I found it amusing that the train was even equipped with that announcement. You're lucky to get doors that shut properly on most Arriva trains, let alone some bloke shilling hot chocolate and crisps.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Random joke from the stand-up routine that will never occur

People seem to be more concerned about the environment these days. I support that, I really do. Even though it's pretty much killed my plans to sell a wood-burning air conditioner.

Actually, it's OK. Because I'm now working on a hybrid that runs on coal and whale blubber.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Monday, February 5, 2007

Can't blog. Sleepy

Throughout the Super Bowl the NFL hyped the fact that a regular season game will be played in London (the game is supposed to be played at Wembley, so it may end up being played in Cardiff). Despite this apparent desire to expand to the European market, the Super Bowl didn't kick off until 23:25 UK time. So I am very, very tired.

Go Colts.