Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Yr hen ddinas

This city is only as old as the stories that are told about it.

I learned recently that Cardiff was established by the Romans 1,952 years ago. Nobody appears to have been keeping records before the Romans showed, so as far as we know Caerdydd (a) is the oldest city (b) in Wales.

You wouldn't really know that from walking around. On the surface, Cardiff often resembles St. Paul, Minn., with its relatively wide and tree-lined streets, architecture that tends not to date back more than 150 years and ample parking. It is a city that Welsh people, Welsh speakers in particular, are often eager to dismiss. This modern, always changing, historyless place; it's not the REAL Wales.

Of course, in fact, it is. Like the real Wales -- whatever the hell that's supposed to mean -- it's history is hidden.

European History courses in the United States would often be better named as courses in "Things The British Have Done," such is their focus. So, the facts and histories of this island are not too unfamiliar. Except when it comes to Wales. We learned nothing of Wales in the United States.

But then I learned the language of this place no one's heard of and it's slowly revealed a vast expanse of literature and history. It's like poking your head into the ground and discovering one of those enormous underground caverns that you could build an A380" in. It's an awareness that leaves me feeling a bit like Nada in "They Live," walking around knowing that all around me, practically coming up from the ground, and unseen to everyone else, is this different culture/history.

Cardiff is like that. Its soul is veiled.

There are former Roman sites dotted all throughout the city, but few are identified as such. The most amusing one for me is the Roman fort that lies opposite the Cardiff Bay Retail Park (FTYPAH: "strip mall"). Turn one way, you see Ford Escorts queuing at the McDonald's drive-through, turn the other way and you see the work of people who laid the foundation of Western civilisation.

Cardiff has the largest concentration of castles of any city in the world. But you'll only find two of them in any tourist literature, with one of those being a castle that was torn down and reconstructed according to Victorian interpretation. The others are crumbling, or paved over by housing estates.

There used to be dozens of canals through the city. Hundreds of miles of railway. Roads have names that reflect a history hardly anyone knows. The original Welsh name for City Road is Heol y Plwca, which refers to the fact that when it marked the boundary of Cardiff it was where heretics were hanged.

In contrast, this city welcomed Britain's first Muslims. It rioted to keep the Irish out. Its history is rich but almost wholly unknown by its inhabitants.

I was thinking about all this last Tuesday as I sat eating my lunch in what used to be a church graveyard but in the last year has been converted into a lovely little square with benches and trees. There is a straight, neat row of old tombstones on one side of the square. Having lived here a year ago, I know that they didn't used to be so perfectly aligned like that. Presumably the subjects of the tombstones are still in their original spots -- beneath the workers and shoppers and tourists eating pasties and pork sandwiches.

There's something about this city. It's a hell of an interesting place if you can find someone who knows about it.

(a) "Caer" means "fort," and "dydd" means "day." Calling the place Day Fort doesn't seem to make sense, so the theory is that "dydd" is a bastardised version of either "Taf" (the river that runs through the heart of Cardiff) or of "Didius" (a Roman bloke who was governor of a nearby province).

(b) I'm using "city" in the philosophical sense here, obviously. As a city, Cardiff is only 102 years old. FTYPAH, the British are anal in their use of words like "city" and "village" and "town." The words are not as interchangeable as they are in the United States; you're only what the Queen says you are.

Monday, October 22, 2007


I don't really have a nifty segue into this, but I was amused by this video, which was brought to my attention by Gin.

Life's been like that lately -- I don't have the mental energy/time for segues. I'm not really able to craft anything, which is why the blog has gone a bit dead. Any writing energy I have at the moment is going into my column for bARN, because they pay me, or my column for IB, because they give me a large audience. Well, a potentially large audience. In truth, the audience is probably no larger than that of this blog, which has yet to deliver those big advertising dollars (a).

But with life swirling around me, I am doing my best to still take notice of it. I'm not sure whether it's my notoriously poor memory or climatologic fact, but this autumn seems more autumnal than last year's. I don't remember golden sunsets and changing leaves and crisp nights.

Autumn is my favourite season, if not simply because it means I can start wearing long sleeves again. I have always preferred to wear long-sleeve shirts because they helped to hide the bruises from when Daddy would push me down the stairs.

No, I'm lying. My dad reads this blog and he's a very nice fellow who won't appreciate that joke at all. I like wearing long sleeves because I am a wiry chap and additional clothing gives me a bit of girth.

I think that last year I was wearing long sleeves by this point but feeling uncomfortable in them. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin last year -- that is my predominant memory of the period. Around this time last year, my large but shockingly unstable ego had crumbled to dust amid the challenge of what I had thrown myself into. I was so out of my league. With the BBC cameras following me around, I felt as if I was in some sort of ridiculous reality show -- a crueller, unending version of "Faking It."

It is fair and perhaps bordering on too kind to say that I was drowning last year. I kept waiting, and, in a way, almost hoping, for the day that I would get called into my advisor's office and he would say: "OK, look, let's be honest. This was all a bit of a mistake, wasn't it? Perhaps we didn't assess you correctly, perhaps you sold yourself a little too well, but I think we can agree now that you simply don't belong here. This is a university, and, really, you should be... well, somewhere else."

Things felt very claustrophobic. To carry on with the water analogy, it was like when Landeros and I would go to the beach on rough days (b). The waves would crest over our heads and pull us into them as they broke, spinning us, tossing us around and slamming us against the sandy grit of ocean floor. Amid that experience, one loses perspective. You focus only on getting your head above water and trying to turn and face the next wave. All other things disappear. I would be standing just a few feet away from Landeros and he would be shouting something at me, and I would be completely unaware.

My memories of last year are rarely of things that existed more than a foot away from me. I remember feeling that I looked stupid, I felt I sounded stupid when I spoke, I worried that I smelled bad, I lived in paralyzing fear that people could just look at me and see how ignorant I was.

But somehow I stumbled through and I'm back in it. Remember that episode of "Scrubs" when J.D.'s conscience manifested itself as an opera tenor who bellowed: "MISTAAAAKE"?

Occasionally that guy will still show up in my world and announce: "YOU'RE AN AAAASS," but, on the whole, things are improved from last year. My ignorance is still immense (c), but I feel slightly better able to deal with it.

So, I am occasionally able to look up and think: "Wow. Were the sunsets this pleasant, this life-affirming last year? Were the female students this pretty? Did the weather feel like this? Was all this happening around me?"

It probably was, to a large extent, and I just wasn't seeing it.

(a)Since I sold my soul and put advertising on this blog back in December 2006, the blog has pulled in a whopping $74, which, when converted to a currency that isn't plummeting, is just about enough for a packet of shortbread at Somerfield.

(b) Jim "Landeros" Landrith and I worked together on the morning shift at KUSI in San Diego. After work, we would grab several cans of Fosters and go to the beach.

(c) I'm not being charmingly self-effacing here; there are shit loads of things that I simply do not know -- the history of Wales, Welsh literature, Welsh culture, etc. Just about everything is new to me. Add to this the fact that I tend to struggle when it comes to interpreting poetry and my university experience is almost unbearably humbling.