Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Stop the car

If you met Paul, you might not immediately put him in the Adventurous category of people you know. That's not really the vibe that he projects.

Stalwart. Person I Can Always Rely On. I have to admit that those are the first descriptors that come to my own mind. But Paul is, in fact, far more adventurous than myself. Or, if not more adventurous, more inquisitive, which is often the same thing. As we wandered about Boston and the Massachusetts coast, Paul would often see something and ask aloud "I wonder what that is," and in the time it took to ask himself the question we would be redirecting to find its answer.

"I'll bet there's a beach over here..."
And suddenly we step out onto a sandy postcard beach, complete with salty leather-skinned New Englander casting into the water, all ours to play football and get sunburned on.

"Did that sign say ice cream?"
And the car is spun round; within minutes we are sitting with massive cones of some of the best ice cream I've ever had.

"Hey look, lobsters for sale."
The car skids to a halt and that night we are eating like kings.

Paul asks questions and pursues their answers. Unlike me, he is not happy to fill in the blanks with pessimistic assumption. This is the way we are supposed to live. I am endeavouring to remind myself of that as I carry on across the country.

Or, as, Bao-Kim simply put it, as I looked suspiciously at the mochi she had bought me: "It's good to try new things, Chris."

Westward.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The spirit of America

"Howlayalivaoasee?"
"I'm sorry?"
"Howlayalivaoasee?"
"Uhm. I'm sorry, what?"
"Clearly long enough that you don't speak English anymore. How. Long. Have. You. Been. Living. Overseas?"
"Oh. Three years."
"Like it?"
"Yeah, it's alright. I'm excited to be back, though."
"Yup. Welcome home."

In a single action, the customs agent flicked my passport back to me and motioned for the next person in queue. I was released into my home country, and into the city where so much of the country began. Boston.

If you grow up in Texas and Minnesota, as I did, you develop a healthy distrust, if not outright distaste for the East Coast. I have long said that a major post-9/11 challenge for many Americans was that of reconciling their long-standing hatred toward New York City with their feelings of patriotism inspired by the tragedy that affected that city. In the last election cycle it was clear that Sarah Palin had gotten over it, returning to the belief that the East Coast as a place full of cold, self-involved elitists who have no understanding of nor desire to understand the majority of the people who make up the United States of America.

I like to think that I'm a wee bit more rational now, but I'll admit that the emotional foundation of that line of thinking is still there in my own self. Like Roman ruins in Barry, Wales. No one ever visits the Roman ruins in Barry. You could easily mistake them for the foundations of a abandoned block of flats. But they are there.

Boston, however. Boston has long been an exception to my anti-East Coast-ism. I love Boston. When I list off the American cities I'd like to live in, Boston always comes first or second (usually switching places with Chicago). I even like the name. Boston. Bahstun. Baaah-stun. Saying the name fires of a flash of indistinguishable image and smell and taste and feeling. I am unable to properly identify exactly what it is that I like about the place, only that I do like it. A lot.

It helps that one of my best friends live here. I first visited Boston in 1995, when Paul was an undergrad at MIT (a). Indeed, that was, until now, the only time I had visited Boston. And yet I am in love with the place. I suppose I have a history of that sort of thing; I had visited Wales only three times before deciding to learn its language.

Have you seen that sketch where Smithy gives a pep talk to the England football team? When he first walks into the team's hotel he shouts: "Hoo-hoo! This'll do!" That's the phrase that kept repeating in my head as I walked around Boston Thursday. Yeah, this'll do. I'd live here. I'd take on this life. I love this city. I love its look, I love its character, I love its people.

I spent my first full day in America walking the Freedom Trail. That sounds like a patriotic sexual innuendo but is, in fact, a large red line drawn into the Boston pavement designed to lead tourists past myriad points of historical interest. A 2.5-mile wander through the foundations of American history. It is tourism genius -- no map is needed, just follow the big red line, dummy. And it struck me as a good way to reintroduce myself to this country; I am starting here, where everything started.

On this tourist-laden path you can also get a feel for some of the Boston mentality. This will come as a shock to peoples of the Real America, but people here (when they're not in there cars) are shockingly friendly. I keep being thrown off by the number of people who will say hello to me, who will strike up little conversations with me, who will offer to help me find my way.

In American terms, Boston is a complicated city to navigate. It curves and zips and offers less signage than most Americans are used to. In other words, it has the feel of a well-planned British city. It was built by British people and retains some of that look and feel. It seems perfectly lovely to me. But here in America, it is god-awful impossible to understand. It hurts the American brain and causes any number of its visitors to simply stop, stare up into the sky and plead with the Lord Our God for the sweet release of eternal sleep rather than having to suffer another moment in this anti-intuitive mess.

True Bostonians, then, take immense pride in knowing their city. They carry their own version of The Knowledge and are keen to show it off whenever possible. So as you walk the Freedom Trail if you stop and look even slightly confused within seconds some old dude will run up and ask if he can help you out -- eager to have his skills put to the test by your query. Since I wasn't really going anywhere, it was impossible for me to be lost, so I would thank them and then we'd have a wee conversation about how hot it was and then bid each other a pleasant farewell. This is not the East Coast that I was raised to despise.
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(a) He is now Doctor Paul -- his dissertation and defence having taken place last week. Congratulations Paul!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I'm shipping up to Boston

Dropkick Murphys: 'I'm Shipping Up To Boston'

All week I've had the song "Shipping Up to Boston," by the Dropkick Murphys, running through my head. Odds are you've never heard that song. It's about a pirate (or, at least, a sailor who communicates through the medium of screaming) who's on his way to purchase a new wooden leg -- Boston, apparently, being home to a fine selection of prosthetics.

On the whole, then, the song is totally irrelevant to my life. Except for the fact that I am going to Boston.

As I write this, I am tapping away on my laptop aboard a Great Western train quietly gliding its way toward London. The green of countryside flashes past under typical cloud-laden British skies. A bloke from Newport sits uncomfortable in his seat, unsure as to whether it is his.

For those of you playing along at home, it used to be that riding a train in Britain was a first-come first-serve experience. You got on the train, you sat down. If there were no seats, it meant you had to stand (and that you were most likely travelling through Wales). In truth, that system still exists. But if you purchase your tickets online you will be arbitrarily assigned a seat, which is lovely and convenient -- because it's always nice to know that you'll actually have a place to sit -- but causes all sorts of trouble for the British.

Contrary to popular perception, British people function quite well without rules. They will apply their own little systems to whatever situation presents itself and for the most part everything works out grand. But if you give British people rules, their brains lock down and refuse to think outside of said rules, regardless of their necessity.

So, you have a train carriage that is mostly empty but for a bloke with a laptop and an Asian lady with a rather pungent sandwich. Throughout the carriage there are a number of seats with little white scraps of paper indicating that someone will be sitting there at some point, but there are a great deal more seats with no strips of paper at all, indicating that he who dares sits. Our man who boarded at Newport found his appointed seat but his female counterpart decided that she wanted to sit facing the other way and promptly established herself in a row of unticketed seats.

"Here," Newport said. "Those aren't our seats."

"They are now," said the woman.

He stood for no less than five minutes, staring at the seat, before finally giving in. With each new station he swivels uncomfortably, expecting someone to come along and not only eject him from his seat but quite possibly the train. Perhaps even the country.

Maybe he'll end up on my flight.

As I say, I'm going to Boston. Flying there Wednesday from Heathrow, spending several days with Paul and BK and then setting out on my own across the American expanse. Physically I will at least pass through Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Some places will get more of my time than others.

The ingrained desire of Americans to tear across the incredible distances of our country is well-documented. It is Manifest Destiny. This is what the Lord Our God ordained. And people have been doing it for years. I'm not breaking new ground; walk into any American coffee shop, throw a brick and you'll hit someone who read On The Road in college and has romanticised their own similar journey ever since. The road trip is written onto our souls.

But shockingly few Americans ever get a chance fulfil that destiny. Some of us are lazy, most of us are tied down by jobs and finances and every other thing. I am able to go because I am equal parts lucky, stupid and impractical. But, the point is: I'm going. And I am really excited.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Scatterbrained

"You're certain to graduate now," one of my lecturers said to me about a week ago as we walked down the stairs from Humanities room 5.18, site of my last ever lecture.

"Ha," I laughed, before questioning the wisdom of laughing in the face of a lecturer. "You would be amazed at my ability to screw things up."

First off I had to complete some six essays before noon 5 May, the last of those -- a not as-strong-as-it-could-be argument against the concept of the Gaeltacht (a) -- being printed out just 12 hours before the deadline. I suppose it could have been worse. When I was on campus to turn in said essays (a process which delightfully involves shoving papers through a wee mail slot and into a wooden box, a system which has always struck me as antiquated and built to be exploited by American deviousness [b]), I ran into a girl who half stared at me as if not 100-percent sure whether I was actually there.

"I just finished that Cymdeithaseg paper 20 minutes ago," she said. "I haven't slept."

With my papers safely turned in I was able to relax for an evening and join in the celebration of Llŷr's birthday (by the way, the girl on the left giving the thumbs up is Elain, who likes it when I mention her in blog posts). But before I can properly enjoy my summer I have just one more academic hurdle -- an exam next Thursday. Appropriately, it is an exam for my Things You Don't Understand Nor Give A Toss About module. Of course I couldn't finish on something easy.

So there is struggle ahead. I am spending these interim days desperately trying not to stab myself in the eyes while struggling to retain what I can about Welsh-language literature of the middle ages. Many years ago, a friend of mine famously enraged a girl when he responded, "You lost. Get over it," in response to her talking about her downtrodden nationality. An evil part of my brain keeps bringing that moment forward as I try to decipher poetry about forgotten and defeated kings of Wales. Yes, I know, it's a part of this nation's rich cultural and historical tapestry. It is important because it shows a literary tradition that extends back to before those damned English types showed up and ruined everything. And anything that proves you are better than the English in any way, at any period of time, has inherent value. Everyone knows that and accepts it as fact. But sweet dancing baby Jesus in a bouncy castle, it's so very not interesting to me.

It possibly could be, in another time, in another place, if all the information were being delivered by Redd Foxx. But now, with that two hours of an exam as the only hurdle to my earning a bachelor's -- and by extension a secured place on my master's degree programme and by extension another student visa allowing me to stay in Britain -- I am struggling to focus. Especially since most of my brain is being used in thinking about my pending trip to the United States.

From May 20 to 9 July I will be bumbling counter-clockwise across the country of my birth. So endless thoughts of travel and planning and organisation and how to pay for it are what fill my head. On top of this, I am supposed to be sorting out funding for next year. And writing a magazine article. I should probably get to those things...
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(a) My basic argument: It's a lovely idea, but so is the idea of living in that cool Mexican restaurant at Epcot. Neither, however, is all that good an idea in practice.

(b) For example: Don't have your paper done? Toss some burning item into the box and all the papers go into flames -- including, theoretically, your own. And suddenly you've bought yourself at least an extra day.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

And that pretty much explains why rugby is so awesome

Watching the Blues-Dragons match Wednesday night I just barely overheard Nigel Owens reprimanding John Yapp and a Dragons prop (both of whom had come on late in the match as replacements) for failing to scrum down properly: "I can see now why you two are not starting."

Brilliant. I laughed for about five minutes.

For those of you playing along at home, the above paragraph is probably so full of unfamiliar vocabulary that it's best to just ignore this post.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Ciudad de México


I love this picture. It comes from the Flickr photo stream of Eneas, showing that life carries on in a surreal way in Mexico's capital city.

I can't quite put my finger on what I like so much about this picture. I just really do. It is strange wonderful sci-fi-esque. If I were to make a film about some far-but-near dystopia, it would start with this shot and we would follow the girl through her day.

Mexico City has long held some sort of strange draw for me. Who knows anything about Mexico City? It's ginormous, with 20 million people living in its metro area, but what do we ever hear about it? Usually it's only bad things -- it is woefully polluted, crime is rampant, corruption is farcically out of control, its infrastructure is crumbling, it doesn't have enough water (clean or otherwise), it's hot, it's prone to earthquakes and most of its citizens are dismally poor -- but something about it draws me.

In the late 1990s, when I was studying Spanish in Nowhere, Minnesota, there was a picture of UNAM's central library in my text book. Something about how ugly-pretty that building is stuck with me. I dogeared the page and would go back to it. For a very long time I would daydream about improving my Spanish enough that I could go and attend university in Mexico City.

But learning another language and then moving to another country to attend university there? Who does that?