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.

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